esterday, the world watched the Trayvon Martin homicide case take another strange turn. Two lawyers claiming to represent Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, held a news conference to announce that they would no longer be representing him. Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig’s action caused a media sensation and a flood of comments from many corners, including CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobinwho seemed to question the wisdom of the lawyers’ announcement, saying: ”Why did these two lawyers feel obligated to do this in public? They make their client look like a lunatic.” Holding a press conference does seem like an unusual move. On the other hand, I think it was a smart decision, given what they were up against.
What Sonner and Uhrig did at the press conference is a lot like what attorneys call a “noisy withdrawal.”
While Sonner and Uhrigh believed that were Zimmerman’s lawyers and had given him legal advice, it isn’t exactly clear whether Zimmerman ever agreed that Sonner and Uhrigh were his lawyers. Published reports state that Zimmerman said he had legal advisors but denied having legal representation when he contacted the prosecutor’s office. (These reports also say that the distinction might have only been in Zimmerman’s mind.) But if there is a glimmer of a chance that Zimmerman believed Sonner and Uhrigh were his lawyers and relied on their legal advice, the law would impose many obligations on the attorneys.
Some of those obligations are to Zimmerman. For example, the attorneys can’t testify against him or share his secrets (unless he sues them).
But some of the attorney’s obligations are to the court, i.e. the justice system. Lawyers are officers of the court. As officers of the court, lawyers can’t help their clients lie to the court. And if something is going on that makes a lawyer concerned that a client is involved in ongoing criminal activity that impacts the case, the lawyer must act.
I’m not saying that Sonner and Uhrig knew that George Zimmerman was breaking the law and using their legal services to do that. Their announcement that they would be willing to take him back as a client suggests that they held no such suspicions. But if what they said about Zimmerman is true – that he’s refusing to respond to their efforts to contact him and rejecting their legal advice – their severance of ties with him makes sense. So does their manner of publicly severing those ties. When an attorney wants to dismiss a client, she can make a noisy withdrawal.
To dismiss a client, an attorney must get the court’s permission. But because of attorney client-privilege, she can’t walk into a courtroom and explain all of her rationale for doing so. For example, if the attorney knows that her client has given false statements to the prosecutor, she can’t tell the prosecutor which statements were false. So how does a lawyer tell the court why she feels she can no longer represent her client?
The specifics can vary from state to state but, generally, in a noisy withdrawal, the lawyer makes an announcement to the court stating that she can no longer represent the client and disavows whatever statements she made for the client before. This does three things. It allows the judge a reason to release the attorney from representing the client. It also signals to the prosecutor that something is fishy without the defendant’s attorney actually violating confidentiality. Finally, it makes clear to the public and the client that the lawyer is no longer representing him or her.
Sonner and Uhrig said during the press conference that Zimmerman is making it impossible for them to effectively represent him. If there were a criminal case against Zimmerman, his attorneys could have made their announcement in court. But because there is no criminal case, Zimmerman’s lawyers had few choices for announcing their decision.
In this sense, calling a press conference was a smart move. Considering their claims that he is no longer communicating with them, it is likely the only way they have of being sure that Zimmerman got the message. How else do they let him know?
The prior statements are intended only as commentary and must not be construed or relied upon as legal advice.