The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

October 2013Volume 101Number 10Page 538

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Loss Prevention

The Zealous Advocacy of Saul Goodman

He's a criminal. He's unethical. So why is Saul Goodman so popular among Breaking Bad watchers?

"I fight for YOU, Albuquerque!"
- Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad

In a TV series replete with antiheroes, Breaking Bad lawyer Saul Goodman, brilliantly played by Bob Odenkirk, is a standout. In fact, the AMC network recently announced that after the final season of Breaking Bad, Saul will be the star of a new spinoff entitled Better Call Saul, a prequel to the original.

For readers who live off the grid, lead the life monastic, or for some other reason don't know the premise of Breaking Bad, here's a quick summary: The protagonist,1 Walter White, is an Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher whose terminal cancer diagnosis prompts him to cook and sell methamphetamine in order to provide for his wife and children after his demise. But this modest criminal scheme is successful beyond Walt's wildest dreams. As Walt eventually tells his partner and former student, Jesse Pinkman, he is neither in the meth business nor the money business - he's in the "empire business."

Saul Goodman is the "empire's" legal counsel. On the surface, Goodman is the archetypical sleazy lawyer. He touts his practice with tacky "Better Call Saul" TV commercials in which he proclaims: "I fight for YOU, Albuquerque!" and a website with a "Welcome Lawbreakers" banner and "blue-light-special" type deals: "From parking tickets to mass murder, from slip and fall to bond fraud, Saul Goodman and Associates is your one stop shop for all your legal needs. This week only - two-for-one misdemeanor shoplifting arrests for the price of one!"2 His office is in a shabby strip mall, and sports a giant inflatable Statue of Liberty on the roof3 and a grandiose oval interior office with Constitution-themed wallpaper and fake fluted columns.

But underneath Saul's artful comb-over is a criminal mastermind, always ready with a plan to further Walt and Jesse's enterprise. One of your drug salesmen in custody and about to "sing like Celine Dion" to the DEA? Have him killed (or, alternatively, pay another guy to take the rap). Too much drug money piling up? No problem! Launder it by purchasing a car wash. Drug lord threatening your wife and kids? No worries - Saul knows a guy who can give the whole fam brand new identities - sort of a Federal Criminals Protection Program.

In short, if the New Mexico Disciplinary Board ever gets wind of Saul's activities, it will have its hands full with Saul's violations of New Mexico Rule 16-102D alone: "…A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal…."4 They might not even get around to Saul's transgressions regarding conflicts of interest, although it's hard to imagine more "directly adverse" interests than those that exist among Goodman's clients.

He's a criminal. He's unethical. So why is Saul Goodman so popular among Breaking Bad watchers, and is there anything we can learn from his character?

Not just another lawyer joke

It's tempting to dismiss Saul Goodman as just another lawyer joke - one that is especially well-told, to be sure, but just another stereotype of the lawyer as a crafty, amoral gun for hire.

In Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture, Marc Galanter notes that since 1980 there has been an increase in the number of jokes highlighting the moral deficiencies of lawyers, some of which suggest that "beneath their exalted professional status lawyers are really indistinguishable from their most despised clients." He cites as evidence of this "the popular play on the term 'criminal lawyer,'" e.g.,

Q. What do you call an attorney who describes himself as a criminal lawyer?

A. Self-aware.5

Indeed, on Breaking Bad, that "joke" turns out to be the logic that convinces Walt to hire Saul Goodman. As Jesse explains, "This is the guy you want….When the going gets tough, you don't want a criminal lawyer, you want a criminal lawyer, know what I'm sayin'?"6 And Saul identifies completely with the goals of his "despised clients."

But I get the sense that while audiences often laugh with Goodman - he has some hilarious lines in the show - they aren't laughing at him. He's not the butt of the joke. In fact, Odenkirk has speculated that lawyers identify with his character to a certain extent. In a recent interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, host Terry Gross asked Odenkirk how lawyers reacted to the character - did they like Saul, or were they offended by him? He responded:

Well, most - I've heard, more than once, people say, I've got to tell you. I know lawyers like Saul - which is always funny to me, because it occurs to me that maybe they mean to say they're like Saul.7

Why would lawyers identify with Saul? Assuming (as I hope we can) that it's not his criminal activities, what do they see in him that strikes a chord?

We all want to be fighters for Albuquerque

One thing you can say for Saul: he makes good on his TV claim to be a fighter for his client. He is committed to the success of Walt and Jesse's meth operation - willing to give them the "tough love" news that they "suck at peddling meth"8 and to do whatever it takes to make their enterprise successful.

That quality is one that the public admires in lawyers and one that most lawyers hope to see in themselves. As Marc Galanter notes in Lowering the Bar:

People are distressed about lawyers' willingness to defend the guilty, but they are reluctant to condemn lawyers for going all out for their clients, even sleazy ones.…
{T]he characteristic of lawyers that engages most Americans is lawyers' loyalty, zeal, and commitment to the client.9

Here, of course, Goodman's client10 is not just sleazy but flat out bad. And, as Galanter notes, "[P]ublic estimation of the level of [lawyer] commitment that is present and that is desirable depends at least in part on the characteristics of the client."11

But one of the dark delights of Breaking Bad is its extraordinary ability to create ambivalence about characters who do evil. Walter White is a manipulative, murdering, child-poisoning, drug-dealing megalomaniac - yet many viewers still find it difficult to condemn him.12 So long as we continue to feel some sympathy for the client, we are free to admire the zealous advocacy of his lawyer.

Real life lawyers must break ethically

If there is any ethical lesson for lawyers in Breaking Bad, it might be a warning about the siren song of unrestrained advocacy. Clients desire it, lawyers admire it, and it plays well on TV.

But in real life, lawyers are bound to put the rule of law before the rule of the client. The Rules require that "As advocate a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position under the rules of the adversary system."13 That last clause is where Saul Goodman and the rules of law and ethics part company.

But we can watch the remaining episodes to see where the other path leads. I can't wait.


Karen Erger is vice president and director of practice risk management at Lockton Companies.

  1. Maybe "protagonist" isn't the right term for Walter White - Vince Gilligan, creator and head writer of Breaking Bad, says that the show "takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist." David Segal, "The Dark Art of Breaking Bad," New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2011.
  2. For more examples of how not to advertise your practice, see
  3. Odenkirk has, apparently, retained the inflatable rooftop decoration as a souvenir: "[I]t's the only thing I kept from the set. My wife and I have it in our bedroom. It fills the entire room."
  4. The analogous Illinois Rule of Professional Conduct is Rule 1.2(d).
  5. Marc Galanter, Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture, Kindle Edition, Loc. 2471, 2478, 2481 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
  6. Breaking Bad, Season 2, Episode 8, "Better Call Saul."
  7. Terry Gross, "Bob Odenkirk Brings Some Laughs to Breaking Bad," August 6, 2013 edition of National Public Radio's Fresh Air,
  8. Breaking Bad, Season 2, Episode 11, "Mandela."
  9. Galanter at Loc. 2467.
  10. One could write (and perhaps I should have written) a perfectly good legal ethics column analyzing the question of "Who is Saul Goodman's client?" Is it Walt? Walt and Jesse? The criminal enterprise? I suppose that drafting an engagement letter would have been difficult under the circumstances - just drafting the scope of services would be a catalog of crimes and ethical violations.
  11. Galanter at Loc. 2469.
  12. See, e.g., Maria Elena Fernandez, "Breaking Bad's Walter White: How We Hate You, Root for You,", August 8, 2013.
  13. Preamble to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, paragraph [2].