Professional Ethics

What does it mean to behave ethically as a lawyer? A few weeks ago, I attended an event sponsored by the new Harvard Law School “Living Well in the Law” program. It was a talk by Harvard psychologist Professor Howard Gardner on what constitutes “good work” in the law. He posed an interesting question to the audience, based on a real-life ethical dilemma faced by one of his research subjects. The actual issue is too complicated to describe here, but what it boiled down to whether a young associate, despite complying precisely with the rules of legal ethics, nonetheless behaved immorally by indirectly misleading an important partner at his firm over a potential client conflict. His lie of omission got him a lucrative account, but at the cost of his professional relationship with the partner. Nonetheless, he was told by other colleagues that he had behaved properly.

The audience at the event divided evenly between those who believed that the associate’s ethical responsibility stopped at the bounds of established ethics rules, and others who felt that he had failed some additional duty. I will admit to being strongly in the latter group: to me, it seemed like a clear case of betraying a personal trust for material gain. But the audience’s mixed response started me thinking about legal ethics in general. It is actually very unclear to me where legal ethics fit into each individual’s own conception of right and wrong.

As lawyers, we have a responsibility to our clients, to be their zealous advocates and act in their interests. As members of the legal profession, we also have a responsibility to the legal system in general, to the pursuit of justice and the rule of law. We also owe responsibility to our families and our colleagues, people who trust us and believe in our word. Lastly, there is also responsibility to oneself, to maintain one’s own personal integrity and honor.

I don’t know what to do when any of these responsibilities conflict. I assume I’ll address each situation as it arises, but I can see the temptation to follow a list of pre-written rules. It’s comforting to have standards delineating the minimum conduct required and maximum duty expected, and there is nothing wrong with a community of rule-followers. The problem is when we’re so focused on the rules that we lose sight of the values underlying them. If doing what is right merely means following the legal ethics codes of our local bar associations, then there would be no need for judgment, thought or even individual conscience. All we need to do is know how to read.

But there is a difference between what one can do and what one should do. Now, I haven’t taken any Legal Profession courses (and as a 1L, I’m not even allowed to register for any: interesting message there), so perhaps this is a topic that the Law School addresses directly later on. That said, we already have the perfect vehicle for starting this conversation early. The Problem Solving Workshop challenges 1Ls to assess legal issues inspired by real-life situations, and incorporating a problem that poses an ethical dilemma seems like a natural fit to the curriculum. Not every lawyer will end up as a general counsel to a toy company, or as an administrative commissioner faced with a sensitive environmental issue, but every lawyer will eventually need to make difficult decisions when his or her responsibilities conflict. The time to start teaching judgment is now.

Geng Chen is a 1L. Her column runs every other Tuesday. 

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.