Lawyers Overdrawn at the Trust Bank

To watch TV, you’d think cops and prosecutors are pretty much sworn mortal enemies of criminal defense lawyers. And, according to Scott Greenfield, a distinguished lawyer and author of the blog Simple Justice, you might not be wrong.

But it didn’t used to be that way. In Greenfield’s When the First National Bank of Criminal Law Closed Its Doors, he describes how it used to work, in the Bronx court system of just a few decades ago (described by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities).

…one of the first things you learned was the sanctity of a “contract.” When you sought a favor, you owed it back. If you didn’t pay on demand, your name was mud and no one would ever do you a favor again. In fact, people would go out of their way to burn you. It was a matter of internal honor.

[talking to young lawyers recently]…not one of them knew what a contract was, or how you banked one or how you made a withdrawal…They couldn’t believe…those of us who worked in criminal law were actually able to cooperate with each other. They couldn’t fathom the existence of an unwritten honor code where we trusted each other to return the favor, or conceive of a virtual bank where our contracts were held, awaiting the day we needed a favor in return.


“Competition” used to mean the healthy thing you learned to do on the ballfield that carried through somehow into business. It made for an efficient systemic approach to commerce. Then, sometime, the approach became the goal.

The adversarial legal system presumably used to serve the higher goal of justice. Now, apparently, the legal equivalent of the invisible hand needs no help from its mortal agents to arrive at justice. Or—more likely—justice is not quite the goal it used to be.

The day Tiger Woods denies a competitor a gimme putt in a casual game we’ll know it’s all over.

Until then, make a few deposits in others’ trust banks. And honor the deposits made in your own.