“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do” said Henry Ford. Indeed, much of a lawyer’s value is his or her reputation in the legal community, a lesson that I hope no attorney learns the hard way.

On my first day as a Summer Law Clerk at Reid & Hellyer, Senior Attorney Jim Manning made this lesson clear: “New attorneys are presumed to have a good reputation. If you do anything to undermine that presumption, it is difficult to rehabilitate that reputation.”

Dave Moore, a Reid & Hellyer attorney, recalled an incident in which a lawyer’s reputation was destroyed forever over the course of a weekend. The case involved the San Bernardino train disaster of 1989 in which a runaway freight train reached 110 mph while descending the Cajon Pass, eventually derailing into a residential community, killing 6 people.

As Friday discussions in the subsequent lawsuit reached an impasse at 5:30 p.m., the attorney for the victims handed Dave Moore what appeared to be a conformed copy of a temporary restraining order that prohibited his client from operating its pipeline. The attorney also handed a copy to the attorney for Southern Pacific railroad, as the TRO prevented the operation of freight trains through the Cajon Pass. Over the Memorial Day weekend, Southern Pacific redirected all trains around the Cajon Pass at an expense of $139,103.90.

On Tuesday morning after the three day weekend, the attorneys realized that the judge had denied the temporary restraining order, striking those portions of the proposed order, signing only an order to show cause for a preliminary injunction to be heard three weeks later. Instead of providing the real order, the plaintiffs’ attorney had doctored the TRO by re-inserting the stricken portions of the order that denied the TRO and removing the date of the hearing on the order to show cause for a preliminary injunction.

Southern Pacific’s motion for attorneys’ fees in the amount of $22,047.93 incurred in setting aside the void TRO was granted  by the trial court and upheld by Justice Ramirez in the published appellate opinion in Dudley Brewster v. Southern Pacific Transportation Company (1991) 235 Cal.App.3d 701.

The adverse attorneys’ fees were the least of this attorney’s problems, as his reputation had been destroyed in the eyes of Dave Moore and the scores of attorneys that heard about his deceptive and fraudulent activity. “I wouldn’t trust him today if he told me the sky was blue,” said Dave Moore.

Six years later, the attorney resigned as a California attorney with state bar disciplinary charges pending, apparently stealing the proceeds of settlements from clients, according to the L.A. Times.

Warren Buffet made this lesson clear: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”