Why Sean Carter Wants You to Laugh at Ethics

Harvard J.D., former securities lawyer, corporate vice president, and stand-up comedian Sean Carter has a light touch with the serious issue of ethical ills under the Rules of Professional Conduct. Find out why he thinks legal ethics is a laughing matter — and what you’ll take away from his “Comedic Legal Education” CLE on June 9.

Why is comedic legal education your area? Why does Chris Rock have nothing on you?
Well, Mr. Rock has a few million on me, for sure. The advantage I have over Chris Rock is speaking to lawyers. My CLE might not be funnier than a sketch by him, but it will be more legally relevant. And my audience will get credit!

I thought I was going to be a comedian. When I quit my job as a big-time corporate lawyer to do this, I thought I’d be telling jokes in Vegas. Someone tapped me on the way and said, “We have these law events and they are really boring.” And that got me started.

People tend to pay attention when they enjoy themselves. People at my seminars say, tongue in cheek, “I did not get any work done today.” They were planning on setting up their laptop and getting some work done during the presentation. But with laughter, you’re always being drawn out and you have to listen to get the joke.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
When people say afterward, “I really needed this. You made me smile for the first time in a very long time.” That happens enough to keep me coming back.

More importantly, I do what I do because nobody wants to go to seminars on ethics. They consider it boring because they’ve heard it before. And it’s true: you couldn’t steal the money in 2012 and you can’t now. That’s why humor is so important, because it is the way to keep people listening. No one thinks they are unethical. But until you really listen, you’re not going to change your behavior.

Why should an attorney spend the day with you when they could be billing time?
You’ll get a great ethical reminder that will be fun, and an opportunity to learn something that you are not going to get out of Prosecution Monthly.

The Fantasy Supreme Court League program we’ll be doing in the afternoon is very valuable. Sometimes, as lawyers, it’s important to know about larger developments in the law beyond the confines of your practice group. Whatever you do, as a lawyer people are going to ask you about the big cases. I think you have a responsibility as a lawyer to understand the larger trends and forces in the law. And there’s a practical connection. For example, you might not have cared about civil rights in the 60s, but it would be difficult to practice real estate or employment law without an understanding of that area. You can’t be insular and stay in your area as a lawyer. And these are fascinating cases.

As part of your ethics content, you’ll be offering insights on common mindsets that result in ethical violations and tips on how to correct those mindsets. Can you give us a quick sketch of one of those mindsets and what insights about it that an attendee will come away with?
That’s my “It’s Not the Fruit, It’s the Root” session in the morning. We could go through the ethical rules time and time again, but ethical dilemmas happen too quickly for you to check the rules. If you don’t have these things ingrained in your character, it’s too late. It’s best if it’s part of who you are that you tell the truth.

Certain mindsets in society conflict with the rules — for example, greed. The mindset in society is, “Spend more money than you have to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t know.” Everything else results from that. The biggest and most common ethical issue is stealing or borrowing the client’s money from a trust account. You can spend your life doing legal analysis about trust account rules, or you can get past that point to a position of not needing the money and leaving it in the account.

Same with conflicts of interest. If you approach from a mindset of, “What’s in it for me?” you will always be combing through the rules. If you come from a position of, “How can I serve?” you are living the rules.

If you have learned one thing from presenting at CLEs, it is…
Be prepared. I tend to speak quickly sometimes. One of the reasons is that I always have more to share than I have time. That’s intentional, because I didn’t do that once very early on and I had a very long day at the podium, where I was trying to stretch four hours of content into a six-hour slot. It’s the same lesson for litigation. You should prepare way more information than you think you need for a motion. I’m always frustrated when there’s more to share than I have room for, but that’s the way to do it.

What would you like Washington attorneys to know about you and your upcoming seminar?
The most amazing comment I get is, “Wow, this was really funny!” I’m blown away every time. You can lie and hype up a lot of things, but funny isn’t one of them. There will be definitive proof when you get there. Promises like “innovative” or “cutting edge” are hard to measure, but with funny, you can tell right away. I guarantee that this will be funny to almost everyone, because it has to be. We cannot pretend on this one.

Of course, someone will also be upset. Part of humor is that it has to touch on something. If I do my job correctly, you will be touched. And that might prick your feelings. The person who is stealing from clients is probably not going to find me as funny as the person who isn’t. That’s my job.

Join Sean Carter for CLE = COMEDIC Legal Education on June 9 at the WSBA Conference Center or by webcast.