Mr. Cohen Is a Stark Reminder of the Temptations that Come Our Way

Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, was sentenced to prison yesterday. Among his crimes were ones conducted with and at the behest of Mr. Trump. Whether Trump will be held accountable for his misdeeds remains to be seen. But in any case, Mr. Cohen is headed off to the pokey. Before he leaves, however, it’s good to take stock of the lessons imparted by his tragic experiences. Why? Because they may help you avoid the same fate, Vera.

It’s not unusual for lawyers to be sucked into their clients’ nefarious schemes. The temptation is great for some. There are clients who shop for lawyers who are willing to assist in their business endeavors without questioning the legality or morality of the same. And even so-called respectable business persons and other individuals find themselves on the slippery slope sometimes. The temptation is almost always the same: money. Although, I suppose you could add power to that.

An ethical, law-abiding lawyer will resist and refuse. But resistance can be costly. It can result in the loss of a client, the loss of a job, or ostracization.

I’m sure I’m not unique in having been asked by a client to assist in an unlawful undertaking. Well, perhaps “asked” is too strong. More often than not, it’s more subtle than that. But the hope and expectations are nonetheless clear.

When the lawyer resists and refuses, the client often aborts and decides the risks aren’t worth it. In other words, the clients heeds his or her adviser’s counsel. But sometimes the client doesn’t abort. Sometimes he or she merely goes underground to pursue the objectives. Sometimes they simply stop calling.

I was fortunate and, because of that good fortune, never found the temptation to abide illegality strong. I was fortunate to have been reared in a family and community that valued honesty and virtue. And, later, to have started my legal career with a firm that had incredibly high ethical standards. As I said, I was fortunate. If I had been reared in the family and environment of Mr. Trump or Mr. Cohen, who knows?

As it is, Mr. Cohen and his family have been going through a living hell. Sure, he brought it on himself. Yet it’s still sad. And unfortunate.

Before it’s all said and done — by the time the work of the Special Counsel, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Attorney General for the State of New York, and the various oversight committees of the House of Representatives is done — it may well be that Mr. Trump and his family also will experience a living hell. And may find themselves in handcuffs. I don’t know. But, clearly, it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities.

No matter, for what is important is you, Vera. And your future. Depending on your career path, you, too, may find yourself tempted to cross the line, cut corners, or engage in underworld activities. There may be large sums of money at stake. Or a lucrative position. Or power.

The time for deciding how best to respond is well before the temptation appears. The time for building the moral fibers in your body and soul are not to be delayed.

As I’ve pointed out before, crime can pay. For every Cohen that is carted off to prison, there are many more who are never discovered or who manage to dodge prosecution or incarceration. But not everyone escapes notice. Or manages to escape just punishment.

But I hope you never think it’s about the odds. Some people do. And that’s why they do what they do: they calculate that the odds of getting caught are low. And that’s how they distinguish between right and wrong or, more precisely, between what’s acceptable and what’s not.

It’s a dangerous method to be sure. The consequences of bad calculations can be severe. But it’s even more precarious than that. For if that’s your method of distinguishing between right and wrong, then there really is no right or wrong in your life. Only odds. And risk assessment.

A large part of becoming your own person is deciding whether virtue is something to be nurtured. Or whether it’s a silly concept for the naive and weak. Many people will influence the decision you ultimately make. Your parents. Your extended family. Your community. Your teachers. But, in the end, it will be your decision to make.

It’s a decision that isn’t made once and then forgotten; rather, it’s a decision that will have to be made frequently, for the temptations are incessant.

You never know when the next Donald Trump will walk through the door. Or when, in the privacy of your home without the light of day, you may be tempted to lie for pecuniary gain.

I guarantee you that you will have to decide. Often. The good news is, the high road will always be open.


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