Mamet play “An Interview” serves as basis for ethics CLE

Actors Mark Roberts, as an attorney, and Celeste Roberts, as an attendant, perform playwright David Mamet's short play "An Interview" during a Continuing Legal Education session on legal ethics at the University of Houston Law Center.

Actors Mark Roberts, as an attorney, and Celeste Roberts, as an attendant, perform playwright David Mamet's short play "An Interview" during a Continuing Legal Education session on legal ethics at the University of Houston Law Center.

  

Nov. 19, 2014 – A man walks alone into a sparsely furnished room and sits in a chair in front of a desk. A woman, dressed in black robes, enters, sits behind the desk, and proceeds to stare at him silently and imperiously.

The nervous man (who we will learn is an attorney) begins a conversation with the woman (known as the attendant) in what will become an increasingly agitated defense of his own past and profession for stakes that at first are not quite clear.

That’s the premise of the short play “An Interview” by David Mamet. It was also the starting point for a discussion of legal ethics in an unusual Continuing Legal Education (CLE) session held Nov. 14 at the University of Houston Law Center.

First, Houston professional actors Mark Roberts and Celeste Roberts performed the approximately 25-minute seriocomic play in an in-the-round setting in a UHLC classroom filled with attorneys. Then, Professor Meredith Duncan, who teaches professional responsibility at UHLC, led a discussion of real-life ethical issues raised by the play, interspersed with snippets of the play again performed by the actors.

During the course of the play, the attorney finds himself admitting to, among other transgressions, lying, “fibbing,” suborning perjury, misusing clients’ funds, perhaps impregnating a woman (maybe a client) and skipping town, and generally being unlikeable.

Duncan quizzed the audience on several of the implications of the attorney’s admissions in regards to the professional and ethical tenets of the legal profession, often citing relevant examples from the Texas Disciplinary Rules for Professional Conduct and state criminal statutes. Among them:

  • The difference between being an “agent” and a “fiduciary” of a client, with the latter having a higher standard of obligation.
  • Whether there is such a thing as “truth,” and an attorney’s obligation to tell it, both in a court of law and in other settings.
  • Whether having a sexual relationship with a client is ever a good idea.
  • Whether attorneys are perceived as “unlikeable human beings.”

UHLC Professor Meredith Duncan leads a discussion of the professional and ethical issues raised by David Mamet's "An Interview."

UHLC Professor Meredith Duncan leads a discussion of the professional and ethical issues raised by David Mamet's "An Interview."

“Do you agree that we enjoy this reputation of being disagreeable, and if so, why?” Duncan asked the attendees, leading to a lively discussion about how that perception is fostered in the public mind and how it might be remedied.

Many said that perception is often a byproduct of an attorney’s professional obligation to represent his or her clients’ interests, even if their actions may appear abusive or overly confrontational to the lay public. But many also agreed that the profession attracts a fair share of “jerks” in the first place.

Jim Lawrence, director of UHLC’s Blakely Advocacy Institute, who designed the CLE, said he’s used “An Interview” in a similar program once before, more than a decade ago. He said to his knowledge, using a theatrical play as the basis for a CLE program is fairly rare.

Duncan said she had never read or seen the play before Lawrence proposed the idea to her. She said she was intrigued by how the play’s themes resonated with one of her primary teaches focuses, and that seeing it performed live was eye-opening.

“It was interesting to see all the different subtleties (in the performance),” she said.

The play portion of the four-hour CLE was followed by a panel discussion of real-world ethical issues faced by attorneys. The panel covered the range of the dispute resolution continuum, including the judicial, mediation, arbitration, civil litigation, criminal law, and corporate counsel perspective.

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