Quandaries and Quagmires: The making of an ethics lawyer.


Byline: William J. Wernz

You could say my career as an ethics lawyer began at St. Thomas College, where I studied philosophy, and St. Thomas Academy, where I had a clerical job. My duties included posting demerits for cadets' offenses to master cards. Too many demerits meant suspension.

One day I asked myself, "Does the offense of 'unshined buttons' warrant suspension, even where the offender leads a life of constant danger?" I decided not, without pausing over my own authority to answer such questions. A fair number of cadets never knew, but they owed me, some big time. The principle I learned was, "Occasionally, a person should rise above principle."

Philosophy, an interest in social ethics, and the spirit of the mid-'60s led me to volunteer work two summers tutoring in a black housing project in New Orleans and doing voter registration in South Carolina. I also was on the Selma-Montgomery march. I saw the "Whites Only" signs, and experienced the taunts and violence of those who hated racial equality. I learned several principles. There really is evil in the world. Moral force can overcome evil, with the strong arm of laws like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. There are times to stand up and be counted.

Philosophy included ethics, and both led to Religious Studies, a Ph.D., and (1970-74) college teaching, including ethics courses. I loved teaching, but the path to success involved a lot of solitary research and publications that only a few would read. Law school beckoned. The aftermath of Watergate with all those disbarred lawyers including the president and attorney general meant legal ethics was now in vogue.

Back to the Twin Cities in 1977, I was hired by a small firm, Broeker & Bachman. Before I arrived, Walt Bachman decamped to become director of the Lawyers Board. Fortunately, Walt would visit and regale us with stories of lawyers doing colorful things.

In 1981, I became an assistant director. My caseload of ethics complaints included two involving lawyers perpetrating business frauds. How does one investigate fraud? I figured it out as I went along. Being hot on the trail could be exhilarating the pure, unholy joy of finding that the watermark of page five of a questioned document differs from that on every other page!

I soon encountered real depravity and drama. One lawyer induced his boyhood friend, a quadriplegic, to put his settlement funds into a wholly bogus investment. The same lawyer induced two other guys, who...

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