Legal Ethics Defined

The Ethical Challenge

If you are a new attorney or are considering becoming one you are going to be faced with many circumstances when you will have to make a decision concerning ethics and the law and how those ethics apply to your situation. This article will explore some of the ethical difficulties you may encounter during your legal career such as the difference between morals and ethics, the difference between law school and the real world, as well as the potential conflict of duty and self interest. We will also answer the question of whether today’s society, and all the things that are different now, change anything on an ethical level.

What Are Ethics?

Before we can discuss ethics we need to understand what they actually are. When it comes to legal ethics, a simple definition would be; A set of rules for professional behavior that have been developed by the entire legal community as a whole, including the America Bar Association as well as the state and local bars, to govern the actions and policies of its members individually as well as the community. These standards are, and have been, developed and modified over many years and represent a code of professional conduct for any and all situations. This does not mean, however, that they are without conflicts or ambiguities. Many things in the law have these conflicts and ambiguities and it is up to people in the legal profession to use their own morals to do the right thing when these muddy areas come up. There is, though, a difference between morals and ethics.

Morals and Ethics – What’s the difference?

The terms morals and ethics are often used in conversation to mean the same thing. They are both rules that govern behavior and the way a person functions in the world and the decisions they make, but they are actually not the same thing. Morals are the rules an individual develops, based on their own personal beliefs of what is right and wrong, to determine the limits they will put on their own personal behavior. While most morals may be widely accepted, they are a personal choice and are subject to revision and compromise over time. Ethics, however, at least in the sense of ethics and the law, are a set of rules for professional conduct that are put forth by the entity that governs the legal profession and are rarely subject to interpretation or change and then only by the group as a whole. Morals guide a person’s daily life while ethics guide a person’s professional life.

Law School vs The Real World

No, we are not going to discuss the MTV show, we are going to talk about the world we live in. While your legal professor may try to catch you periodically with what seem to be ambiguous or difficult scenarios, in law school there is almost always a right and wrong answer and the question of ethical behavior is always black and white. In the real world things are often very different. In the class room the ethical standards are followed to the letter because your grade depends on it. In the real world it is your livelihood that is at risk.

Suppose you are a freshly minted lawyer who has just joined the bar and have secured yourself a plum position with a big firm. The world is your oyster and you are on your way to success. During your eighty to one hundred hour work weeks you realize there are some questionable things being done by some of the senior partners. Nothing really big mind you, just a small thing or two that you know, from your recent stint in school, are technically ethical violations. What do you do? Do you confront the partner or partners in question even though doing so could directly, or indirectly, affect your career? Do you bring these things up to your superior? Do you write an anonymous letter to your local bar association? Or, do you just put your head down and work while making the decision not to do those things when you have to make the choice about them? Tough question isn’t it? That is the real world and the conflict between your duty and your self interest is one you will have to face.

Duty and Self Interest

The questions of ethics and the law often are most difficult to deal with when the ethical position is in direct conflict with the involved person’s self interest. Ethics are most often compromised when relatively minor infractions can bring rather large rewards, kind of like those minor infractions the senior partners were committing earlier or the ethical violation you committed when you saw the problem and looked away to preserve your position.

Another really good example of a conflict between the lawyer’s ethical duty and their self interest would be when your firm offers everyone at your level a huge bonus for billing over a given amount of hours. The year is winding down and you are getting pretty close to bonus territory. You are working on a document and associated memo for a very large client who spends tons of money with your firm every year. You could probably do everything you need for this project in sixty hours and the end result would be perfectly adequate. Do you provide the adequate work and bill the sixty hours, leaving yourself short of the fat bonus? Or, do you give them the whiz-bang, deluxe edition that bills at two hundred hours and puts you over the top into bonus land? This company spends so much with the firm that they would never notice either way. What do you do?

What about today?

Are things different now? Society has changed the way it looks at and judges things today from how it did not that long ago. In the age of email, text messaging and social media on the internet, personal morals and rules of behavior seem to have become very ambiguous and fluctuate greatly. Do these recent changes in the world have any effect on ethics and the law? Do they change the expected behavior of a legal professional?

The answer is, no, not really. While these exciting new inventions will bring with them volumes of new laws, they really do not change the rules of ethical professional behavior. Fortunately for everyone involved, the ethical rules that govern attorneys are slow to change and don’t just bounce around with the whims of society. This stable nature of the rules of ethics and the law is one of the major things that cause the legal profession to remain a respectable career choice.