11 November 2008

“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” (Part 1)

Yes, I've stolen the post's title from Spiderman, but hear me out. One of my profs has spent the last two years telling us about the power we will have as lawyers. I've been reflecting on that for the past few days. If he is correct (and he's given us enough anecdotes that I think he is) I will have the opportunity to do great good. I will graduate with 119 other people, and, as lawyers, we have that same opportunity to do great good. My concern is will we (and the grads from the 19 other Canadian Law Schools) use that power for good or evil? For better or for worse, lawyers form the core of the Canadian political system. They are the politicians, and perhaps more importantly they are the policy advisors who draft legislation. They are also the people who become the judges who interpret (and rewrite the law). There is a lot that they, and soon, I can do, if we choose to act in an ethical manner.

However, the sad truth (based on societal perceptions of the legal profession and my own observations) is that the profession doesn't do a lot of good. In fact, I think it could be said we are responsible for a lot of evil in the world. A year or so ago I ran across this article by Patrick J. Schiltz. It's titled "On Being a Happy, Healthy and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy and Unethical Profession" Though it's an American piece, I think it's very relevant for Canadian lawyers as well. He begins the article saying:

Dear Law Student:
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the profession
that you are about to enter is one of the most unhappy and unhealthy
on the face of the earth—and, in the view of many, one of the
most unethical. The good news is that you can join this profession and
still be happy, healthy, and ethical. I am writing to tell you how.

It's a long article, but that paragraph essentially sums up the whole thesis of the paper, but for anyone wanting to know what legal life is really like, I suggest reading it. Here are some nuggets:

"And because your life as a lawyer will be filled with the mundane, whether you practice law ethically will depend not upon how you resolve the one or two dramatic ethical dilemmas that you will confront during your entire career, but upon the hundreds of little things that you will do, almost unthinkingly, each and every day."

"The system does not want you to apply the same values in the workplace that you do outside of work (unless you're rapaciously greedy outside of work); it wants you to replace those values with the system's values. The system is obsessed with money, and it wants you to be, too. The system wants you—it needs you—to play the game… It is very difficult for a young lawyer immersed in this culture day after day to maintain the values she had as a law student. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, young lawyers change."

"Unethical lawyers do not start out being unethical; they start out just like you—as perfectly decent young men or women who have every intention of practicing law ethically. They do not become unethical overnight; they become unethical just as you will (if you become unethical)—a little bit at a time. And they do not become un- ethical by shredding incriminating documents or bribing jurors; they become unethical just as you are likely to—by cutting a corner here, by stretching the truth a bit there."

A few years ago, I ran into an interesting opinion on why lawyers become unethical. It's because of the way we are taught in law school. We spend three years learning how to twist the law to our own purpose. The legal system is an adversarial one, and as lawyers we have to be zealous advocates for our clients- that's what they teach us. But that means we spend three years learning how to find loopholes in the law. That's what clients pay us for. If that's what we are taught, is it any wonder that the profession lacks ethics?

This post is ending up longer than I expected, so I'm going to split it into two parts. I've tried to establish that the profession has problems with ethics that stem from the entire law school program, and tomorrow I'm going to write about some of my experiences with these ethical difficulties. Most of my classmates don't see ethical issues, but I think that as a Catholic, I have spent more time thinking about these ethical difficulties and what they will mean for my life, and how I can practice ethically.

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