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Teaching Morality in Law Schools: It’s What You Do, Not What You Say

Jack Crittenden, Editor in Chief of the National Jurist posted this piece on Friday entitled “Why It’s Time to Teach Morality in Law Schools.”

He argues that the financial meltdown was facilitated by lawyers who failed to advise their clients that what was legal may not have been right:

“When clients want to act legally, but not morally, their attorneys should be prepared to advise them beyond the law and to take stands as befits their own moral character.”

He faults law schools for  “not preparing today’s lawyers for the profit-driven legal marketplace of today, rife with its moral quandaries.”  “[H]onesty, Fairness and Compassion” are common values that everyone shares and Law Schools should “ be discussing the concepts of fairness and compassion in relation to the law and representing clients.”

After the Watergate scandal in the 1970′s, there was similar push for law schools to help clean up the profession. The ABA imposed an accreditation requirement mandating legal ethics classes in every law school. But did those ethics classes prevent what lawyers did in the financial meltdown. It is possible they made it worse because the Rules of Professional Conduct reinforce a minimalist conception of ethical legal representation. While they require competence, diligence, and loyalty, they suggest (but do not require) that lawyers advise their clients on “non-legal” matters. And the competition among law firms makes it highly unlikely that clients will be told “It’s legal but not moral.” Why risk losing a client when the firm down the street will say what the client wants to hear? Especially when our ethical rules don’t require anything more than the bare bones advice.

Changing the curriculum is one then but changing law school behavior is another. Maybe Law schools should reject the US News consumerism that drives many of us to play an ends justifies the means game to gain higher rankings. The cynicism of many law schools  is not lost on students. How can they advise their clients about morality when their law schools play cynical games to increase their ranking? And the law schools haven’t broken any laws either. The message students receive: do whatever it takes to get what you want.

I am all for a good discussion about fairness and compassion but, as my mother always said, it’s what you do, not what you say, that counts.

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October 12, 2009   5,738 Comments