George Eliot on clients’ demand for lawyers’ ethics

From Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), “Janet’s Repentance,” chapter 2 (paragraph breaks added):

Old lawyer Pittman had once been a very important person indeed, having in his earlier days managed the affairs of several gentlemen in those parts, who had subsequently been obliged to sell everything and leave the country, in which crisis Mr. Pittman accommodatingly stepped in as a purchaser of their estates, taking on himself the risk and trouble of a more leisurely sale; which, however, happened to turn out very much to his advantage. Such opportunities occur quite unexpectedly in the way of business. But I think Mr. Pittman must have been unlucky in his later speculations, for now, in his old age, he had not the reputation of being very rich; and though he rode slowly to his office in Milby every morning on an old white hackney, he had to resign the chief profits, as well as the active business of the firm, to his younger partner, Dempster. No one in Milby considered old Pittman a virtuous man, and the elder townspeople were not at all backward in narrating the least advantageous portions of his biography in a very round unvarnished manner.

Yet I could never observe that they trusted him any the less, or liked him any the worse. Indeed, Pittman and Dempster were the popular lawyers of Milby and its neighborhood, and Mr. Benjamin Landor, whom no one had anything particular to say against, had a very meager business in comparison. Hardly a landholder, hardly a farmer, hardly a parish within ten miles of Milby, whose affairs were not under the legal guardianship of Pittman and Dempster; and I think the clients were proud of their lawyers’ unscrupulousness, as the patrons of the fancy’s are proud of their champion’s ‘condition’.

It was not, to be sure, the thing for ordinary life, but it was the thing to be bet on in a lawyer. Dempster’s talent in ‘bringing through’ a client was a very common topic of conversation with the farmers, over an incidental glass of grog at the Red Lion. ‘He’s a long-headed feller, Dempster; why, it shows yer what a headpiece Dempster has, as he can drink a bottle o’ brandy at a sittin’, an’ yit see further through a stone wall when he’s done, than other folks ‘ll see through a glass winder.’ Even Mr. Jerome, chief member of the congregation at Salem Chapel, an elderly man of very strict life, was one of Dempster’s clients, and had quite an exceptional indulgence for his attorney’s foibles, perhaps attributing them to the inevitable incompatibility of law and gospel.

The standard of morality at Milby, you perceive, was not inconveniently high in those good old times, and an ingenuous vice or two was what every man expected of his neighbor.

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