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Teaching Ethics

A fellow professor recently asked for a recommendation on texts or articles that would be useful for teaching ethics. I found this to be heart warming that the professor cared enough to do such research, but I wasn’t really able to offer a direct answer.

My “professional responsibility” class in law school was about as useless for teaching me ethics as the MPRE was for testing the subject.

On the other hand, sitting having a beer with more experienced attorneys has imparted more wisdom than any textbook or law review article ever did or could.

I try and inject PR/Ethics into my classes through introducing my students to other practitioners, and sharing real-life stories about how it “really works in practice.”

When it comes to Ethics, I have never found a book or article good for anything but wrapping fish or lining bird cages.

When it comes to ethics, here’s what I try and instill in my students:

  1. Follow the teachings of Elvis — “Do what’s right for you, as long as it don’t hurt no one.”
  2. Follow the teachings of Bill & Ted – “Be excellent to each other.”
  3. You are not a hired gun. Your obligation to the profession is greater than your obligation to your client – and especially greater than your obligation to earn a big bonus.
  4. Learn the art of Client Control – The most important word a lawyer should know is “NO.” And it should be uttered to clients on a regular basis – especially when the client wants you to do something slimy, shady, or discourteous.
  5. Take responsibility: The next most important words are “I screwed up.” Take responsibility for your errors without reservation and without delay – and they can be cleaned up far more easily. “The biggest problem in the world. Could have been solved when it was small.” (Witter Bynner, American author, 1881 – 1968)
  6. Karma is a real force: I don’t mean that in a supernatural way, but what goes around really does come around. Understand that every action you take could (and likely will) have a very real impact upon other people – including your client. Make sure you educate your client about all of the potential consequences of their actions. That isn’t to say that we are not occasionally forced to screw up someone else’s life, but don’t do it lightly. I don’t care how good the client is, or what the client says, I will never knowingly be an agent of vengeance or spite.
  7. Stick to your beliefs: Since I practice First Amendment law (and I have a passion for it), I will not ever knowingly cause harm, nor through inaction allow harm to come to the First Amendment. That means turning down some pretty sweet clients and cases occasionally. For example, if I get a worthy and worthwhile plaintiff’s side slander case, I hand it off to a woman who is such a great defamation lawyer that she scares the living bejesus out of me. The client deserves to be represented, but it doesn’t have to be me that does it. If you have no beliefs, go get some before you take the bar.
  8. Draft mentors: Have a list of people you trust. Pick a few mentors who are older, and have a few at your own level, who you can call at any time in order to re-calibrate your moral compass. Any time I am in a quandary, I go through my mental list of my mentors and respected peers and ask myself “what would my mentor/friend think of me if they knew I did this?” If I have any doubt at all, I call them or email them and ask them. I never make an ethical decision alone – and I never will.
  9. Forgive yourself: Don’t beat yourself up if you fail at the above occasionally – we are all human. Forgive yourself, make amends for any errors or omissions as quickly as you can, and try and be better every day. That way you never accept your failures as an excuse to fail again – and you grow incrementally and naturally.

If you want to “teach” ethics, after you are done sharing your own experiences (especially your mistakes) have a couple of highly ethical and experienced guest speakers come in to talk to them. Best case scenario, bring in your own mentor(s).

Nothing instills a reverence for the profession and for “doing the right thing” more than having the “why” of ethics explained by someone who had “been there.” Simply teaching the rules is worthless – it is just another set of regulations – and when lawyers learn regulations, they start to think about how to work around them. That isn’t ethics, that’s covering your ass.

Getting the spirit of the rules instilled in them will ensure that they take the lessons truly to heart. I *never* worry about what the bar would think of my actions. I *always* worry about what my mentors will think of them. If my actions would not make my mentors proud, I change course.

This is a profession, not just a job. When students learn that we are all in this together, and what goes around comes around, they start setting aside the “lawyer show” stereotype, and start becoming truly ethical professionals – that doesn’t come from anything that has footnotes.

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