If you missed this juicy bit of news recently, here’s the skinny: According to The National Law Journal, William Reed, a partner at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, carried on an affair with the wife of his client, Sam Seay, while representing Seay in a wrongful termination case. A former BancorpSouth Inc. executive who was fired after being diagnosed with depression, Seay was also Reed’s childhood friend.
"I gave Sam some free advice when he was terminated, and then he hired other lawyers," says Reed, who claims he didn't play that big a role in Seay's termination matter. (Reed says Seay eventually settled with his employer.)
His client didn't think Reed's role was so incidental. Seay was hopping mad when he found out about the affair and sued Reed (pictured at left) for emotional distress and alienation of affection, in addition to breach of fiduciary duty. Seay also sued the firm for failure to supervise and vicarious liability.
On the issue of fiduciary duty, the Mississippi Supreme Court recently held that Seay failed to “show that the affair between Reed and Seay's wife affected Reed's representation of Seay" in the wrongful termination case. (Reed says all claims against the firm were dismissed, but that he personally faces an alienation of affection claim.)
Reed couldn't have been more polite and relaxed when I chatted with him over the phone. But still, let’s call Reed’s behavior in this matter for what it is: tacky. I won't wade into a moral discussion about the relationship, because I don’t know the details. But I’ll go out on a limb on this: Sleeping with your client’s spouse is generally not a good business strategy.
"On a technical level, the decision may be correct, but from the larger perspective of whether the attorney violated the trust of his client, I think the answer is obvious," says Robert Hillman, a law professor at the University of California at Davis in an e-mail. "Justice Cardozo, who gave us the 'punctilio of an honor the most sensitive' standard of fiduciary responsibility, is rolling over in his grave."
That's a fancy way of saying that Reed acted like a complete jerk. That’s certainly the popular perception.
But I think Reed deserves another look. I saw something else in Reed—a quality that most commentators seemed to have missed—and that’s his unflinching professionalism.
After all, Reed was advising Seay while carrying on a hot and heavy affair with Seay's wife. Unlike some of us, Reed actually absorbed the lesson we were taught in law school about not letting your personal feelings get in the way of your lawyering. In a way, you just don’t get more professional than Reed.
Successful people tend to have that ability to compartmentalize and juggle competing demands and loyalties. And lawyers, in particular, are very good at it. "There is no group I can think of that practices the psychological act of compartmentalization with more dexterity and willingness than lawyers," says James Dolan, a psychologist in Dallas who specializes in treating lawyers. "Indeed, it may be the basic intellectual act of law practice."
President Bill Clinton, of course, is the ultimate compartmentalizer, and regardless of your politics, I think most people would agree that he’s a very smart man.
I don’t know if Reed is anywhere near Clinton’s league, but I must say I’m impressed.
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Top photo, Mark Goddard/iStock