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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Portraits in Hubris: You Can Lead a Lawyer to Ethics, Can You Make Them Drink?

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Jim Chen at MoneyLaw and Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice each posted on the meaning of the separate but oddly serendipitous indictments of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, investment mogul Bernard Madoff and New York lawyer Marc Dreier. Each of the three had some brush with law school and would presumably have been admonished, at some point, of the unique power and responsibility placed on lawyers in our society. They seem to have missed the memo.

I took the obligatory course in Professional Responsibility last spring, an experience I can only describe as an exercise in competitive piety. I remember Greenfield once aptly describing the hypothetical ethics game we play in law school as screw the lawyer. I have posted here previously on what it takes to pass the MPRE and it doesn’t involve much of a moral compass.

In middle school, one of my social studies teachers, Kevin Sipe, devised an adaptation of the ethical coercion experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo. I forget exactly how it was implemented, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson – my own moral fortitude is never to be entirely trusted and must be continually tested. Ethics classes, by their very reason for being, are too often allowed to be celebrations of a cheaply-bought ethical infallibility that doesn’t exist. My instinct is that being overly convinced of our own morality is the surest way to lose it.

Consider the rapid descent of each of these men. Were they plucked out of obscurity by these scandals? Of course not, each was celebrated in his own right before being unmasked. A mountain of justifications paved the path they walked and each was reassured by their own sense of success and the reflection of it in those around them. The road to moral bankruptcy is lined with well-wishers. Standing on principle, as Jan Kemp’s story illustrates, is a very lonely act.

We are not learning how to behave ethically in law school, we are learning how to describe it. One takes a semester and the other takes a lifetime. We would do well not to confuse the two.

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Category: advice to law students, lawyers behaving badly, Professional Ethics and the MPRE

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