After it looked like he may have dodged a bullet in U.S. Attorney firing matter, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is again drawing heavy fire from the Congress and the media.
Should he resign for the good of the country and to help the Bush
Administration regain some credibility?
The slow motion collapse of General Gonzales’ reputation and ability to lead the Justice Department is painful to watch, unfair and damaging to both the Administration and the Justice Department. But the time has come for Gonzales to depart for Texas and give the President the opportunity to name an Attorney General who can serve undistracted for the remaining 2 1/2 years of the Bush Presidency.
This is unfortunate since the evidence to date suggests there has been no misconduct on the part of the Attorney General that would require the President to discharge him. There is, however, a growing public record of mistakes, misjudgments, revised explanations and weak oversight to suggest that the Attorney General should voluntarily step down.
As a lawyer in private practice with more than 30 years of experience hiring, firing and managing lawyers, I looked at General Gonzales situation from the framework of what would happen in private practice.
When large law firms get in trouble — and they all do — certain strategies have proved to be effective in managing a serious malpractice claim or similar disaster. Let’s look at how these strategies might apply in the Gonzales situation.
First, when allegations are made against a lawyer, no matter how senior, a firm immediately removes that lawyer from direct involvement in evaluating the claim.
Removing the lawyer involved does not imply that the firm agrees improper conduct occurred. It recognizes that no individual can fairly investigate his or her own conduct. Any well run law firm immediately wants an independent evaluation of the facts before mounting a defense.
The clumsy way the Gonzales Justice Department has responded to attorney firing issue seems to reflect a department in disarray. Whenever an allegation is met with explanations involving multiple revisions it is almost impossible to regain credibility.
Unfortunately, the Attorney General of the United States cannot duck appearing before a hostile Congress to explain his conduct. But by mishandling the initial reactions and investigation in the first instance, General Gonzales has destroyed his ability to recover.
Second, in private law practice the client is always right.
All law firms have had a situation develop where a client loses confidence in a particular lawyer or the law firm. Frequently the lawyer or law firm has not mishandled the matter or given the client any reason for the mistrust.
But lawyers and law firms recognize that the client’s judgment is what counts. When a client loses confidence in a particular lawyer, the wise lawyer will immediately withdraw and assign another lawyer to the case. This is for the benefit of the firm and the client and usually works to the long term benefit of the lawyer involved.
Similarly, a law firm may voluntarily give up a representation even though the client is mistaken regarding the cause of the loss of confidence. It is often better to part company amicably than to wait for the curt pink slip letter from the client.
General Gonzales needs to recognize that he is the Attorney General of the United States and the People are his ultimate clients. He is not the Attorney General of the George W. Bush White House. And he should recognize that he has lost the confidence of a large number of his clients.
Like it or not, the U.S. Attorney firing matter has given visibility to a wide range of judgment errors, lack of oversight and memory lapses that raise questions as to competence of the Attorney General.
In my view, none of these matters suggest that General Gonzales has engaged in unethical or improper conduct. They do, however, suggest that he is deeply enmeshed in a series of matters that call in to question his competence.
The country and the President need a competent Attorney General for the remaining 20 months of the Bush Presidency. There is no shortage of highly qualified and respected Republican lawyers that could honorably serve the President and restore the integrity of the Department of Justice.
Lawyers in private practice need to know when to step aside for their own and their firm’s benefit and in fairness to their clients.
General Gonzales should do the same and step aside for the benefit of the Department of Justice and in fairness to his clients — both the President and the People.