Chair's Corner

Civil Disobedience for Attorneys: History and Ethics

By Stephen D. Williams

Greetings, and welcome to my penultimate column as Chair of the Division. I hope that you enjoyed last issue’s guest column by Melanie Bragg, where she previewed the 2018–2019 Bar Year when she will be Chair, and that you are looking forward to what she has planned as much as I am. It should be a great year. While we are excited by what is to come, there are still a few more months left of my year as Chair, and I am looking forward to finishing the year strong.

This issue of GPSolo magazine gives us a look into a topic that draws strong feelings on all sides: civil disobedience. We learn about the impact of civil disobedience and the role it plays in a democracy, how to build a practice related to civil disobedience representing clients charged and arrested for crimes as a result of acts of civil disobedience, and related issues. You will also find a response by our Military Lawyers Committee to Judge Eileen C. Moore’s article in the January/February 2018 issue, along with our coverage of technology and practice management.

The History of Lawyers and Civil Disobedience

Considering this issue’s theme, I tried to think of famous lawyers who are known for their acts of civil disobedience. Surprisingly, I came upon the name Mohandas Gandhi, who was trained in the law in London and first employed civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa as part of the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. Upon his return to India, he organized protests against excessive land tax and discrimination and led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax and later called for the British to grant India independence.

Of course, our own nation’s history has also featured attorneys who committed acts of civil disobedience. While we don’t look at them as law breakers, our lawyer Founding Fathers certainly were committing acts of civil disobedience when they met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776 and drafted a document we hold near and dear, the Declaration of Independence. The committee that the Continental Congress appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence was made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Only Franklin was not an attorney. Of the 56 men who signed the Declaration, 25 were lawyers who represented 11 of the 13 colonies—excluding only New Hampshire and New York. There can be no doubt that if George Washington had not been successful in defeating the British Army to win our independence, these men would have been executed along with their non-attorney brothers for treason by King George.

The Ethics of Lawyers and Civil Disobedience

During the 2017–2018 Bar Year I have pointed out certain ethical concerns in our practice of law, and I will once again point out that there can be ethical problems with representing individuals who plan and commit acts of civil disobedience.

We all know that a lawyer cannot assist someone in breaking the law and therefore should not be involved in the actual planning of a civil disobedience act. This is not to say a lawyer cannot advise a client about what the law is and how it might be applied to a client who is planning or risking arrest. Therefore, an attorney should answer a client’s questions about the legal consequences of certain acts.

One of the considerations that must concern attorneys is the ultimate goal of the client who is arrested owing to an act of civil disobedience. For instance, clients may not want to be found “not guilty” of the act they are arrested for. They may, in fact, want to be convicted to make a point, or they may want to act a certain way during a trial to make a point. These acts may cause an ethical dilemma for attorneys as they are ethically bound to do their best in representing the client.

Division App and Digital Publications

Have you downloaded GPSolo’s app yet? As you may know, the Division now has our own app—ABA GPS 365—which is a place where you can see all that goes on within the Division. If you attended either October’s Solo & Small Firm Summit in St. Paul, Minnesota, or April’s Joint Spring Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, you know that the app is your source for all things at our meetings, from the events schedule, to who is registered for the meeting, to who is speaking there, and the app also features forum meeting posts and a gallery where attendees can share photos of the meeting.

The ABA GPS 365 App is also a place where we will be linking to the GPSolo eReport electronic newsletter and the Digital Edition of this very GPSolo magazine. This will become important as we go forward and more of our publications will be digital only.

On the topic of digital publications, this year, owing to budgeting considerations, I decided we would try an experiment and reduce the number of printed issues of GPSolo magazine from six to five. As this is the fifth issue of the 2017–2018 Bar Year, the next issue you receive (July/August 2018) will be in digital form only. It is an experiment not only to determine the amount of actual money saved by not printing and mailing the issue but also to see how the technology works, and it will help us evaluate the viability of a digital-only publication.

Please understand that the decision to undertake this experiment was not an easy one to make, as I appreciate that to may of our members, this magazine is the one tangible piece of evidence they receive of their Division membership. I hope that you let us know your thoughts about this digital issue when you receive it in early August in your e-mail in-box, on our ABA GPS 365 App, and on the Division website at

Finally, the last event of my year as Chair is the ABA Annual Meeting, which will take place in Chicago, Illinois, August 2 to 7 (Division activities are scheduled for August 2 to 4). This year the Division is bringing back Solo Day, where you can attend CLE programs covering a wide range of legal topics at a low price. Please keep a lookout for further details.