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Friday, January 08, 2021

Lawyering and Responsibility

Somehow I have managed to retain my back door into Prawfs, and with Howard's permission, I am sharing what follows.  It is my note today to my Contracts students who just finished their first two credit hours segment and will return for the remaining three credit hours in the spring semester.  I thought it might be of some interest to other law professors.

 Lawyering and Responsibility

I know that you will be consumed over the next hours and days with exams and grades, but I decided I wanted to pass along some thoughts about current events and their relationship to what we do together.  Somebody who hasn’t endured the first two credits of my Contract Law course might not understand the connection between the substance of the class and the political and social events of the last several months. 

My students, past and present, know that contract law is a logical model used to translate real-world narratives of desired outcomes into legal binding commitments.  Before the fact of disputes, lawyers use contracts to model, in fewer bits and bytes of information, an underlying analog reality, and do so in a way that permits parties to act together in the face of risk and uncertainty.  After the fact of disputes, lawyering is weaponized reason, sublimating (to repeat a reprehensible bit of recent incitement) trial by combat into an intellectual and non-violent game of winners and losers.  The rule of law is a cultural norm that says the loser of that game accepts the loss without resort to trial by combat.

I have spent my academic career trying to articulate the difference between the nature and logic of legal systems, on one hand, and moral imperatives, on the other, in situations far more mundane than we have been witnessing.  It began with the observation, in the wake of the Enron-WorldCom corporate scandals of the early 2000s, that there were significant limitations to the legislation of “good governance.” Courage, independence, integrity, humility, all essential characteristics of good CEOs, board members, Presidents, and Senators, resist being captured in the language of a statute or a contract.  Statutes and contracts embody fundamental characteristic of positive law: if antecedent conditions exist, rules of law establish inferences that particular legal consequences must ensue.  Both the thrill and the dark side of lawyering arise from the complexity of the real world narrative – we don’t always agree that the antecedent conditions exist, and even if they do, we don’t always agree on the particular rules that get triggered. 

Many business decisions (like many family or personal decisions) are not easy – closing an unprofitable plant, for example, creates distress but is necessary if the business as a whole is to survive.  Personally, I don’t love every professional decision I’ve ever made. Nor can I be sure my belief that I was appropriately reflective was not a rationalization.  But if I can’t recognize the clear cases of the clash between logic and moral imperatives, then the nuanced cases are hopeless. 

In the days since we last were together as a class, I have thought about saying something about lawyering that has gone beyond the pale, specifically the specious litigation undertaken by Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis and other lawyers around the country.  Several weeks ago, I signed the Lawyers Defending Democracy letter calling for bar associations to pursue sanctions against those lawyers.  The license to employ the logical model to translate narratives into legal consequences is not a license to write fiction or spew fantasy.  The result of the litigation demonstrates that it was fiction and fantasy.  And the spewing of fantasy by lawyers who should know better – incompetents like Powell and accomplished lawyers like Cruz and Hawley – contributed to the violence.

You will get licensed as a lawyer for the same reason you get licensed to drive a car or carry a firearm.  You will have been entrusted with the weapon that I have now spent two credit hours teaching you to use.  How you use the weapon, if at all, is ultimately not a matter of legality (except in the most egregious cases), but one of conscience.  As we have seen in class, the challenge usually won’t be to differentiate between clear cases of good and evil – but rather to decide in close cases of the Venn diagram overlap how, if at all, to employ the intellectual gifts you brought to class and the professional tools that have been entrusted to you. 

I will never be able to give you a transcript grade on this particular lesson.  But it’s what I hope you remember long after you have forgotten the two old drunks who contracted on a napkin to sell the Ferguson farm for $50,000, title satisfactory to buyer.

I look forward to seeing you (via Zoom) on January 25.



Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on January 8, 2021 at 04:57 PM in Current Affairs, Lipshaw, Teaching Law | Permalink


Or was trial by combat appropriate then? Or was destruction of government property not actually violence then?

It's really difficult to keep up with what rules we're playing by on any given day.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Jan 8, 2021 5:29:24 PM

What about those lawyers in New York who firebombed police and their vehicles.

Did you sign anything condemning them?

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Jan 8, 2021 5:25:37 PM

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