lukegilman.com : The Blawgraphy
Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Please note: I'm no longer updating this particular blog, but keep it around for archival purposes. Visit me at the current blog at www.lukegilman.com

What did Texas Tech See in Alberto Gonzales?

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has ended his rather public spell of unemployment with a new gig on the faculty of Texas Tech University as a visiting professor this fall. A bold move on Tech’s part. A Houston native, one senses Gonzales had to look further afield that one might have initially expected for a receptive audience. Tech, no stranger to controversial hires, thought it was worth a shot. I think they’re right. I envy Tech students the opportunity.

To the extent that we’re old enough to make up our own judgments, a faculty hire need not be seen as an endorsement. Whatever I may think of his tenure in office, I also believe he has had the rare chance to grapple with the issues of governance in our day as few have had the opportunity to do. Gonzales has been on the giving and receiving end in an increasingly politicized justice department, had to navigate the murky waters of distinguishing ones own moral limits from ones duties as an advocate and representative, and observed the mechanisms of power in very close quarters. There’s a lot one could learn from him. I am somewhat disappointed that the law school hasn’t seen fit to take advantage of his availability, at least not from any of the published reports; Gonzalez strikes me as having the opportunity, much like Robert McNamara did for a previous administration, of discussing ethics outside of the laboratory, in the way such dilemmas are experienced, rather than with the false piety of the professionally ethical.

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

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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