Monday, August 22, 2011
Teaching Legal Ethics in a Legal Recession II
Let me note one hopefully positive idea I've taken from all the recent fuss, although its roots lie earlier than that. Last spring, I wrote a post about my recent experience teaching legal ethics in a general and legal recession. Having taught the course for around eight years by that point, I wrote that the kind of dialogue I was getting in class seemed to have changed, and that the economy seemed to be one of the reasons it had changed. Students may be less willing to engage with questions of legal ethics in practice when they aren't sure they'll even get a chance to practice; they may adopt more of a zealous advocate model than an "officer of the court" or "overarching duty" model, and sometimes may even be more comfortable (at least in class!) with what most of us would consider unethical conduct, because they are so worried about getting and retaining scarce clients; and, in a broader sense, their dismay and sense of dislocation may affect their ability and willingness to enter into the kinds of necessarily hypothetical discussions we hold in class about legal practice.
Today I start my fall class in legal ethics, and my first readings are not from the casebook. Instead, I've assigned a series of blog posts about legal education and the legal economy, including some of my own, as well as Bill Henderson's recent co-authored piece in the ABA Journal about paradigm shifts in the legal economy. To be sure, there's a "caveat emptor" quality to doing so: I may not be able to have an immediate impact on whatever general communications my school or other schools issue, but I can be frank with my own students about the state of the legal economy. And I certainly think students deserve a chance to air their dissatisfactions and fears. Beyond that, though, I hope our discussion will remain as an underlying theme as we go through the rest of the semester. I also hope that, having had a chance to express those views, students may be more willing after that to engage in the kind of open-minded participation that can make a legal ethics class interesting and valuable. I hope to remind them that, cynicism aside, a reputation for ethical lawyering can have positive professional effects that will benefit them not so much at their first legal practice job (when and if they get one!) but at their second, third, and fifth jobs. And finally, just as I recently wrote that students may get more out of law school if they are willing to commit themselves to it and find areas that they love, so I hope that they will see that valuing one's own professionalism and ethical integrity can be an intrinsic, personally rewarding thing that will enrich their own professional experience. We'll see. If nothing else, at least I hope my students will now know that they are not the only ones thinking about these issues.
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My legal ethics professor made it be known that she was aware of the economic pressures and realities that her students were going through. She used their situations as a unethical behavior frame of references for why a student may decide to falsify resumes or bar applications or why newer attorneys may decide to double/over-bill clients, which I had not previously considered. Her mere candidness and acknowledgement was a breath of fresh air and very much appreciated, at least personally speaking. I would be interested in hearing your students' responses to these initial reading assignment and whether or how this introduction to material fosters/shapes the discussion and students' understanding of material in subsequent classes.
Posted by: Res Ipsa | Aug 23, 2011 1:55:03 PM
Have you had your first class yet? I want to have this sort of discussion in my ethics class, but I'm not sure about covering it in the first session. I'm afraid if it goes badly. it will get the class off to a bad start from which it may not be able to recover.
Posted by: Jim Milles | Aug 24, 2011 4:46:14 PM