The question of how far lawyers can go in providing clients the strongest possible defense underlies a rare trial coming to a close in Chicago, where federal prosecutors accuse an attorney of coaching defendants and witnesses to outright lie.
Beau Brindley faces obstruction of justice, perjury and other charges stemming from evidence gathered in an FBI raid of his downtown law firm. Closing arguments are scheduled today in the bench trial.
The Iowa-born Brindley, 37, made his name in Chicago with impassioned defenses of purported mobsters and drug traffickers. He's boasted about aggressive strategies, including spurning plea deals. He's also described how the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders impressed upon him how even the world's worst deserved the best legal representation.
Among prosecutors' allegations is that Brindley presented written scripts of questions likely to come up at trial, followed by false answers he told clients and witnesses to memorize. Among the witnesses who testified against Brindley this month were some of those former clients.
By resorting to fabrications in a half-dozen criminal cases, prosecutor Mel Johnson said in his opening statement, Brindley had undercut one of the foundations of justice: that witnesses are supposed to tell the truth.
"It's a system that must be based on honesty," Johnson told U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber.
Brindley testified this week that everything he did was not only legal but common practice. That included the written Q-and-As, which Brindley said were not how-to guides to lying but a way of ensuring testimony was as consistent and as accurate as possible.
And, he insisted, his overriding message to clients was always, "You have to tell the absolute truth."
Lawyer jokes aside, the vast majority of attorneys adhere to laws and ethical rules prohibiting them from lying on the job or encouraging others to do so, said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law and a leading national authority on legal ethics.
Gillers said cases like Brindley's are extremely rare. He said he could think of two cases in recent memory of lawyers being charged specifically for their work with clients and witnesses.
Gillers said most lawyers eschew the kind of question-and-answer scripts Brindley is accused of using, precisely because they can be construed as coaching witnesses to lie. He concedes, however, that "the ethics of witness preparation can be murky."
"It is a lawyer's responsibility to help a client present his side of the story," he said. "Sometimes certain words are more effective than other words."
Altering facts would clearly cross the line, he said.
One reason cases like Brindley's are so rare is because attorney-client privilege typically shields private interactions between lawyers and their clients from investigator scrutiny.
But Gillers said most lawyers are meticulous about not crossing lines into manipulation of testimony for a simple reason: "You are risking your entire career if you do."
A conviction on the kinds of felony charges Brindley faces not only carry the possibility of years in prison, it would likely result in a once up-and-coming young lawyer's disbarment.