The Ethics Lessons of "Better Call Saul"
By: Jim Denton, CPA/PFS, CGMA
This self-study's CPE exam questions and submission instructions are located at the end of this article.
A little background
The show “Better Call Saul” is a six-season, 63‐episode TV series that has aired and streamed on AMC since 2015 and just unveiled the last episode in August of 2022.
“Better Call Saul” is the prequal to “Breaking Bad,” which originally aired in 2008, and ran for five seasons until the final episode aired on Sept. 29, 2013.
The events portrayed in “Better Call Saul” take place starting in 2002, running up to and after the “Breaking Bad” storyline—which was set between 2008 and 2010. The concluding episodes of “Breaking Bad” happen in 2016, and there are hints mysteriously sprinkled throughout the six seasons of “Better Call Saul.” Yes, the timeline is confusing.
The TV blockbuster, “Breaking Bad” chronicled the continual descent of a high school chemistry teacher evolving into a drug kingpin, and the events that led to his dramatic demise. The main character of “Better Call Saul,” Saul Goodman, is a slippery lawyer in both shows.
As previously mentioned, the main character of “Better Call Saul” is Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk. Goodman’s given name is Jimmy McGill or “Slippin’ Jimmy,” coined by childhood friends in his hometown of Cicero, Ill., where he was known for his pranks and cons. Pay close attention throughout this article as the leading character will be referred to as both Jimmy and Saul.
He moves to Albuquerque, N. M., to be with his older brother and lawyer, Chuck McGill, who affords him a job in the mail room at his law firm. Jimmy passes the bar exam and becomes a lawyer, but his domineering older brother Chuck is unaccepting and blocks Jimmy’s advancement in the firm.
Jimmy leaves the firm and starts practicing on his own, becoming the “lawyer that guilty people hire,” and ultimately gets involved in the city’s criminal underworld. Later, he changes his business name to Saul Goodman—a play on the phrase, “It’s all good, man.”
Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn, is a promising lawyer—tender‐hearted yet savvy—and ruthless. Later, the viewers learn of her tough upbringing. She is drawn to “the prank” and finds herself participating in some of Jimmy’s capers. Kim is successful at legal work and attracts solid clients for the firms she works for. Later, she gravitates to pro bono type work that pays very little but gives her deeper personal satisfaction.
Chuck McGill, played by Michael McKean, is Jimmy’s older brother who suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Chuck defended Jimmy in a misdemeanor action back in Cicero. Chuck is a no‐nonsense, successful lawyer and a named partner at HHM, a firm in Albuquerque.
Howard Hamlin, played by Patrick Fabian, is the other living named partner at HHM. He is described as a “Kennedy‐esque” lawyer who is winning at life. He is an affluent, decisive and self‐absorbed managing partner of HHM. He is also heavily influenced by Chuck and thwarts Saul during his time at the firm.
There are other characters in the show that play significant roles. Most of these main personalities are criminals. Their names are Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, Lalo Salamanca and Nacho Varga—each of them is a different type of criminal mind and personality. For this article, I’ll focus on the lawyers who are expected to be somewhat more virtuous and professional in their behavior.
Ethics issues of each character
Since this is an ethics lesson and the show is intricate, I am going to use examples of character behavior rather than expand on the show’s content and amazing plot twists— although the show’s plots are exceptionally written.
As we look at Howard Hamlin’s potential unethical behavior in the show, we see his professional dismissiveness of his brother, Jimmy. We also see Howard allowing himself to be manipulated by Chuck to not admit Jimmy as a lawyer at the firm in season one. He is consistently rude and dismissive to Kim to the point where resentment is created. I see his biggest blunder as his ultimate “taking of the bait” of the pranks to engage with Jimmy and Kim in season six.
In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey discusses the most important distance in our lives as the space between stimulus and response [i]. How we respond to the situations that come our way is pivotal. We must strive to be mindful and not so wrapped up in ourselves that our responses to outside stimuli dominate us to our own detriment. This is a difficult matter for prideful people.
Charles “Chuck” McGill is constantly critical of Jimmy. In season one, Charles is the mastermind behind Howard’s treatment of Jimmy at the firm and, then again, not allowing Jimmy to continue work on the Sandpiper case, which Jimmy brought to HHM at Chuck’s insistence. Chuck becomes obsessed with proving Jimmy’s sabotage of Chuck’s work in season two, which ultimately leads a very ethically minded Chuck to secretly recording Jimmy confessing to his own fraud.
The legality of recording conversations varies from state to state. Oklahoma is a one‐party consent state. In Oklahoma, it is a criminal offense to use any device to record or share communications without the consent of at least one person taking part in the conversation [ii]. There is an exception where people are speaking and there is no expectation of privacy—like at a party or a restaurant. It’s important to indicate that this conversation is being recorded before recording a conversation or meeting.
Kim Wexler has many ethical issues. Aside from her bold participation in Jimmy’s schemes and cons, she runs a scheme in season five to convince a pro bono client to accept a plea bargain. In season six, she pretends to be Lalo’s lawyer to have a conversation about Jimmy’s whereabouts while Lalo is incarcerated. Ultimately, she tells a bold‐faced, fabricated lie to Howard’s widow about his death.
Then there is Jimmy. His list of ethical issues is lengthy. His first big problem is client acceptance. After leaving HHM, he is practicing law on his own and he needs clients, badly. He tries hard to get clients at first and then learns about their guilt and difficulties.
Like lawyers, client acceptance is an issue that we as CPAs encounter. This caused me to reflect on an axiom from Tom Peters’ book “The Professional Service Firm 50.” He writes, “It’s axiomatic: You’re as good – or as bad as the character of your client list. In a very real sense, you are your client list!”[iii] When a client’s ethics are bad, you tend to become bad. It’s a downward spiral.
In her article in the December 2020 issue of the Journal of Accountancy, Sarah Ference states that good client acceptance boils down to three basic things: 1) Tone at the top; 2) financial strength and 3) culture. If you can get a solid base for those three things, you are certainly in a good place with client acceptance.[iv]
Above that, CPAs who advise taxpayers can experience conflicts in working with separated or divorced spouses. Experience tells us that problems will arise, and you will end up in trouble with one or both of them. Auditors must continually monitor firm independence—in fact as well as appearance.
Jimmy also violates lawyer advertising rules in season one because the Jell-O cups he gave out at the assisted living center were not clearly labeled “Attorney Advertising” or something to that effect.[v] Alternatively, CPAs are allowed to engage in any type of advertising, so long as it does not violate the FTC Act, Section 5, which disallows false or deceptive advertising.[vi]
Jimmy’s ethical violations continue as the show progresses. Most of them are scams on the court system and other lawyers. He openly violates client confidentiality without client consent by informing Kim of client matters regularly before they are married.
Lawyers must not reveal information without client consent. This contributes to the trust that is the hallmark of the client‐lawyer relationship. The main exception is where knowledge of information will prevent substantial harm to others.[vii] Generally, CPAs must abide by ET‐301 that states “a member in public practice shall not disclose any confidential client information without specific consent of the client.” But CPAs are compelled to abide by lawful subpoenas, the state board, CPA Society, AICPA investigative inquiries and government agency requests for information.[viii]
Due to Jimmy’s poor client acceptance processes, he becomes a “bagman” for criminal client, Lalo Salamanca, hauling a bag of cash out in the desert, which ultimately leads to witnessing a murder and not reporting the murder to authorities.
All this bad behavior by Jimmy causes problems at his law office—especially obvious with his secretary. Over time, the employee evolves from the ideal employee to criminal behavior of her own. When employees are constantly exposed to unethical behavior and rudeness from their superiors and clients, they can naturally gravitate to unethical behaviors just like their bosses.
In the final episode of the show, there are three flashback scenes that I find especially poignant. One flashback is Jimmy with his brother Chuck who, after an unusually nice conversation, is back to telling Jimmy that he’s not good enough. Chuck asks, “We always end up having the same conversation, don’t we?” Do you have people in your life that you have that same conversation with? What are you doing to change that?
In a conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut, Jimmy reflects about the prospect of stealing the drug money to build a time machine saying, “First thing we do, take six-million bucks and build a time machine….Where would you go first?” Mike reflects on family and then backs up to his own initial failings. Jimmy only talks about the money.
In another flashback, Jimmy has a similar conversation with Walter “Walt” White. Walt calls him on it and states, “This is about regrets!”
That’s the thought. This whole ethics subject is about regrets. Can you live with yourself and what you do, what you are about to do, your actions and how you will hurt people along the way?
In her book entitled “Old Home Town,” Rose Wilder Lane states, “We are never aware of the present; each instant of living becomes perceptible only when it is past, so that in a sense we do not live at all, but only remember living…[ix]
The idea is that in the end, all we take with us in this life are our memories—how we treated people and how we reacted to the way that people treated us. What we will think about forever is what we wished we had said or done instead. The fewer of those regrets we have, the better our own eternity will be.
Please find time to watch the 63 episodes of “Better Call Saul.” It is an amazing show with a profound message and lessons for us all.
i Ibid, pgs. 69‐70
ii 13 OK Stat § 13.176.3, § 13-176.4
iii Ibid, Chapter 3, pg. 29
iv Journal of Accountancy
v American bar
vi CPA Journal
vii American bar
viii AICPA Code of Conduct. pdf pg. 146
ix Ibid, Chapter 1, pg. 13
JIM DENTON, CPA/PFS, CGMA, is partner emeritus of Arledge in Edmond, Okla. where he is responsible for providing leadership to the firm’s wealth management firm, Summit Capital Advisors, LLC. Denton empowers his clients, so they may live their best life. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please complete and mail a copy of this exam along with your payment information to: Oklahoma Society of CPAs / CPAFOCUS Self-Study / 5201 N. Shartel Ave. / Oklahoma City, OK 73118-6026 by December 31. Note: The magazine self-study is $25 for members and $40 for nonmembers