Should George Zimmerman's lawyers have dropped the case? Ethics in the news.

Apr 11, 2012

The two attorneys for George Zimmerman said Tuesday that they can no longer represent the neighborhood watch volunteer in the highly charged Trayvon Martin shooting case because they have lost contact with their onetime client. They also expressed concern with his emotional and physical well-being.

Should the lawyers have kept the case and expressed more concerned with Zimmerman's mental health instead of how they look professionally? Or were they right to drop the case since Zimmerman wasn't consulting them?

Brad Hirschfield discussed this topic, including the race issue associated with the case, and more.

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The Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman story holds our attention because it is about much more than what happened one night in Sanford, FL.  It is about us -- how we treat each other, what we assume about each other and how the legal system protects and fails to protect people at critical moments.  Two stories emerging in the past 24 hours highlight these questions.


First, George Zimmerman's lawyers fired their client, and did so on TV.  Is that really okay?  If they care about Mr. Zimmerman, as they claim to, why did they fdump him?


Second, what do you make of the fact that race seems to predict how people feel about this case more than facts?  Why are white respondants to a poll more readily say that they need more information to make a determination about what really happened, than do black respondants to the same poll?


What do you think?  Join in and share your questions and comments as we explore the big questions behind this big story of the day.

Those lawyers did the right thing. It's not that they look like idiots taking this case on, it's that their client thought the smart thing to do would be to call Sean Hannity. The attorneys are trying to look out for George's best interests, and Sean Hannity is looking for a ratings boost.

Slow down, partner!  They lawyers may have done the right thing, and there is certainly room in the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct to justify their actions, but it's surely no slam dunk.  Was it really necessary to "fire" Zimmerman?  And if so, why in such a staged fashion?  That surely was not acting in his best interests.


Also, it appears that the call to Hanity was not the issue, at least not as much as Zimmerman's reach out to the prosecutor.  And to be fair to Hanity, he has said nothing about his contact with GZ, even when asked.  Whatever one may think about Hanity, he seems to be taking the high road here.

I don't think you can blame the lawyers if the client drops them, which is essentially what George Zimmerman did. Is it their job to deal with his mental health? It seems a fine line between representing a client and concern for a client.

A fine line it is, which is exactly why we are addressing it here, and why it is about more than this one case.  While it may not be an attorney's job to care for his client's mental health, dealing with it sure is.  It just seems to me that they had many options which could have been pursued prior to a news conference in which they dumped the guy.


To be clear, both attorneys -- Sonner and Uhrig -- were representing Zimmerman on a pro bono basis, which is laudable.  However, when it comes to certain services, the fact they are offered free of charge, cannot become an excuse for pursuing them in a more cavalier fashion.

George Zimmerman disappeared. What were they supposed to do? You can't represent a client who goes AWOL.

You are totally correct.  But that does not mean that you can simply dump that client either, especially in a highly unusual way which could actually harm the client.  I don't have any reason to think that was their intent, but many lawyers feel that is exactly what the news conference did.


It is really hard to help someone who does not want to help themselves, and there is certainly evidence that Mr. Zimmerman fired his lawyers as much as he fired them, but if he as mentally and/or emotionally unstable as Sonner and Uhrig have suggested, the issue shifts. 

Lawyers, once involved in a case, do take on certain obligations for their clients, even when they are difficult clients.  The issue was raised here today not because I believe that they could never fire Zimmerman, but because the "how" and "when" parts of that decision speak to what it means to take on the role of another human beings defender, and how casually one can walk away from that role, even when it may ultimately be the right thing to do.

I really don't much care about George Zimmerman, but I am concerned about mob rule. Do you think the prosecutor is liable to be swayed by the call for Zimmerman's arrest and conviction...and will a jury be more liable to convict rather than face the wrath of the people calling for a conviction?

Great questions and very legitimate concerns, and I assume that in asking them, you are not suggesting that if the prosecutor does charge Zimmerman, it will be because she was swayed by popular sentiment -- thereby devaluing or underming the legitimacy of her decision.  You wouldn't do that, right?


There is no such thing as a decision reached outside of the context in which it is thought about.  Of course popular sentiment plays a role in how prosecutors make decisions -- as it does in how defense attorneys make them as well.  Is Trayvon's family acting based purely on what the law demands, or are they especially empowered by public support for their cause?


The proper course for both sides is to admit that popular sentiment does have and influence, recognize where it may be doing so in each of their cases, and try to adjust accordingly.  In the case of any potential jury, that is what the process of questioning potential jurors is for.  Whether changing the location of the trial is a relevent issue in the age of the internet, is a serious question in my mind -- unless the location is changed to Outer Mongolia, for example.

Why wasn't George Zimmerman contained in the first place after the shooting occurred?

If by "contained" you mean placed under arrest, it appears that the police did not believe that there was cause to do so.  It boggles my mind that could be the case, but they did take him into cusotdy and make that determination at the station.  He was not simply let go at the scene.


And as frustrating as all that is, we need to be admit that none of us really has enough information to fully assess the propriety of their decision.  In fact, the prosecutor appears to still be wrestling with it herself.

As a lawyer, my read of this was that there were other reasons that they decided not to continue the representation of Zimmerman, but that disclosing those reasons would violate privileged. Thought?

You may well be correct, but if you are, then the decision to hold a public press conference strikes me as especially misguided and potentially motivated by nothing more than the desire for free publicity.  I hope I am wrong, but it is starting to look that way to me.

I don't see how lawyers can represent a person who doesn't return their phone calls--it's like representing a ghost. And as the lawyers learned of Zimmerman's contact with the prosecutor through the prosecutor's office and not their client, I believe they felt at a dead end. It takes two to handle any legal case and when the client quits cooperating with his attorneys, what choice do they have?

There is no question that Zimmerman was making his lawyer's job difficult, if not altogether impossible, and that it seems that they were well within their legal rights to dump theor client.  But the claim about their concern for his well-being and the way in which they played this out, don't seem to fit.


Again, the issue is really what is it that lawyers and clients owe each other, and how do they help each other to succeed.  In that sense, it's like a marriage, and like a marriage, you have to ask not only about what is immediately and "legally" required, but what is it that the partners can each contribute at any moment to maximize the relationship.

Do you think they really dropped the case, or are they just trying to get their client to snap to attention? Sounds like they're not really quitting, just taking a break since they can't contact him.

I wonder about that too, but if that news conference was their call to him, it was an dd way to reach out, especially to someone who they described as isolated and suffering from PTSD.


They certainly could have refused to answer question because they were out of contact, made clear that they took no responsibility for Zimmerman's actions while they were not in contact, and pleaded for him to be in touch because they felt that they could help him.  They put so little emphasis on this part, that it's really hard to believe that was there agenda.

The issue is not that these attorneys quit being the attorneys of record for Mr. Zimmerman, it is that they held a press conference to publically state that they were quitting. The line was crossed when they made it a public spectical about themselves and forgot that Mr. Z was a prior client.

You have, as we have been discussing, put your finger on the core issue -- that and how they conducted themselves at the press conference.


Relationships get terminated, both professional ones and personal ones -- that's life.  The issue is how that is accomplished -- how the security and the dignity of those separating is best preserved.  What I saw Sonner and Uhrig do, didn't pass muster, as far as I'm concerned.

I don't think African Americans view race as being more important than facts. I think African Americans see themselves getting arrested for any and everything and see nothing being done when an African American male is shot. 1 in 3 African American males will be jailed and those of use with means and access to mainstream society see young white men given lesser charges and more lenient sentences for the same acts. The Fact that NO arrest was made is what is most upsetting regardless of the court's outcome. The notion that American Criminal Justice serves and protects non-blacks only appears to have been amplified by the few facts that have been released.

This observation was too important to let go, and I so wish that we had more time to address this topic, but as time is getting short, this will have to be our wrap up question.


What people see is as much a function of what they believe as it is the other way around.  In other words, we don't simply believe what we see, we see what we believe.  We look for confirmation of that which we already believe.  Humans seek coherence and while there is nothing wrong with that, it renders your observations more problematic than you, or the millions of people who share your views, may realize.


I labor under no pretense that things are as equal in this country as many people think.  We have a long way to go on that score.  But one could look at your statisitcs and come away saying that they provide the rational for people assuming the worst about African Americans, and that if one in three males is in prison, racial profiling is a reasonable way to proceed.  I am not suggesting that it is, but I am suggesting that the polling suggests that most people see things in ways which affirm that which they already believe and confirm that the world is as they think it is.


The power of the Trayvon Martin case is that it offers all sides an opportunity to break out of dangerous presumptions and see things more as they are, then how we assume they are.  That is the kind of breaking out, which actually creates the changes leading to a better and more just society for all of it's members.

Well, that does it for this week.  As always, my only regrets are that we don't have more time and my fingers don't have more speed!


Don't forget to find me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @Brad Hirschfield.


'til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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