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Category: Legal Ethics

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To Define the Beginning of Human Life or Not, That Is the Question

Twice a month I meet with some of my students for a critical reading.  In our last January meeting, we decided to commemorate Roe by re-exploring Judith Jarvis Thomson’s  seminal article A Defense of Abortion. Thomson’s defense of induced abortion by exploring our moral duties in the unrealistic case one found oneself kidnapped and plugged in to a virtuous violinist who is sick and needs one’s kidneys for nine months in order to heal has been highly criticized. Nonetheless, every time I read it or discuss it, I find how enlightening her thought experiment still is, as it confronts us with our set of moral beliefs and its incongruences with our policy stances. Moreover, it makes me always ponder about our lack of a well-thought and coherent abortion regulating scheme.  But that is a topic for a different post. Today, I would like to concentrate on a related matter that stemmed from my discussion of Thomson’s article with my students.

By the end of our conversation my students and I were inquiring whether it was possible to assert a defense of stem cell research/therapy even taking for granted the right of life of the embryos, as Thomson did in her paper. It seemed obvious for almost all of us that using embryos for those purposes would be considered a blatant deprivation of the embryo’s right to life and an impermissible use of another person’s body; and thus, could not be sustained under Thomson’s argument. So we decided to try to come up with a scenario similar to Thomson’s violinist that could aid us in exploring the moral adequacy of stem cell research/therapy.

An appropriate thought experiment eluded our not so brilliant minds. We did not want to come up with a fallacious and common place thought experiment such as the one of the burning building test  in which one is forced to decide who to rescue first: twenty 8-cell embryos kept in a freezer or a baby in peril. We were not looking to formulate an experiment tilted to one side like the burning building test, in which the “incomplete human character” of the embryo is made self-evident by the “inescapable instinct” to rescue the “actual” human being. However, the truth is that it is quite difficult to come up, in a couple of minutes, with a reasonable possible scenario in which all the circumstances of stem cell research/therapy are replicated in a way that could sensibly help us assess our moral agency.

First, we would need to come up with a scenario in which we have a “human being” in a permanent frozen state (e.g. a cryogenized virtuous violinist) in which the conditions necessary for a successful life require a willing human host that is either related to the cryogenized violinist or has the authorization of his guardian to serve as a host for nine months.  Second, we must come up with a particular circumstance (e.g. a military operation) that would force the guardian of the cryogenized violinist to choose between using the frozen body to help in the recovery of a sick non-cryogenized human being (e.g. a  young Science Nobel laureate) whose only real, feasible and cost efficient chance to a healthy life is using that frozen body at the expense of eliminating all possible chances of an uncertain future life for the cryogenized violinist or leaving the cryogenized violinist frozen for an indefinite period of time and allowing for the sick non-cryogenized Nobel laureate to die. Finally, we would need to come up with the circumstances that led the cryogenized violinist to be treated as a surplus human being and at the same time be treated as the raw materials for the creation of future equally virtuous violinists (e.g. the practice of cloning virtuous musicians).  Furthermore, the example would need to consider the possibility of making the cryogenized violinist for the sole purpose of healing the sick non-cryogenized laureate (e.g. the possibility of the world coming to an end if the Nobel laureate does not find a solution to the problem before he dies from her sickness).

The end result is a very absurd, unrealistic and perhaps too intricate thought experiment.  Yet, exploring the limits of such an experiment may be a possible way to coming up with a defense of stem cell research/therapy even when one grants the right of life of the embryos.  Nonetheless, I would like to pose that the absurdity and illusory nature of these thought experiments suggest that we should face the inevitable: we must delimit when human life begins if we truly would like to come up with a moral/ethical regulation of stem cell research/therapy. This inescapable moral question is more evident when we contrast our legal stances and nation’s practices on issues like torture, war, death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and justification and necessity defenses.  The system is manifestly incoherent.

I do believe that a sensible answer will only come when we legally embrace the fact that life – and by extension human life – exists in a continuum. Law should echo that reality. A coherent and ethical sound system can only arise after we legally recognize that there is a point in that continuum in which life becomes human and that there are different stages before that point in which life is a subject of certain rights but not the same rights a human life is a subject thereof. Laws should define that moment and those stages. There is no moral reason to avoid doing so. As there is no ethical rationale either to treat totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, oligopotent, unipotent cells, fully developed human beings not capable of living on their own, and born human beings in the same way.  Furthermore, our history and legal system have always made distinctions on how we treat the right to life of human beings based on particular deontological assumptions.

Our inquiry into how to regulate stem cell research/therapy should not be made under the assumption that embryos are in fact human beings and subjects of the same rights. A valid answer to this recent human reality must be based on a rigorous analysis of moral questions such as: 1. When does a life become a human life?; 2. Which type of rights is a non-human life entitled to?; 3. Are there different stages of a non-human life?; 4. Are those stages deserving of a differentiated right treatment?; 5. What are our moral duties to a human life?; 6.  What are our moral duties to a non-human life and it corresponding stages?; and 7. Under which circumstances are we relieved from those duties to human and non-human lives? These questions should be guiding our legislative process regarding scientific inquiries and not biased assumptions as to what constitutes human life.

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Gatekeeping and the Economic Value of a Law Degree (Part 2)

LincolnIn my last post, I discussed how the commentary on Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre’s “The Economic Value of a Law Degree” has illuminated a separate and worthwhile avenue for further research—namely, whether the presence of powerful gatekeepers who oversee the practice of law should make us confident that the value of the law degree will be relatively stable.

Most helpful in this regard has been Deborah Merritt’s post regarding the impact of the typewriter on lawyer education requirements.  At the risk of putting words into her mouth, Merritt observed that the typewriter may have contributed to the decision of the New York bar to make attendance at a three-year law school a prerequisite to bar admission and, therefore, that S&M were too hasty in concluding that people misconceived the typewriter to be a threat to the value of the law degree.

My earlier post explained that we must be careful not to conflate structural changes in the law degree’s value with structural changes in the credentials that one will need to become a lawyer.  By keeping the two separate, we can better understand how the gatekeepers to the industry might be able to insulate the value of the degree from exogenous forces.

In this second post, I’d like to offer some final observations on gatekeeping.  I begin with the acknowledgement that the effects of gatekeeping extend well beyond the population of degree holders, though S&M had perfectly valid reasons for focusing on that population.  Thereafter, I return to the relationship between gatekeeping and nostalgia, highlighting the strange role that the late Abe Lincoln played in the adoption of education requirements.  To finish up, I briefly explain how gatekeeping measures have long been—and will continue to be—a tempting tool for those with the power to wield them. Read More

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Gatekeeping and the Economic Value of a Law Degree (Part 1)

gatekeepers image

When I first read the commentary concerning Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre’s “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” I was most surprised by the attention that the commenters paid to the paper’s passing reference to the typewriter. S&M are aware that their work arrives at a time when it is popular to believe that technology has wrought a structural change to lawyers’ earnings. For their part, S&M cite Frank Miles Finch’s obloquy against typewriters in the first volume of the Columbia Law Review to show that worries of technological ruin are nothing new in our line of work. After listing several other examples (such as word processing and Westlaw), S&M maintain that “lawyers have prospered while adapting to once threatening new technologies and modes of work.”

Taken out of context, this last statement might sound as if S&M are engaging in bold fortunetelling based on a scant historical record, but a few paragraphs later, S&M concede that “past performance does not guarantee future returns” and “[t]he return to a law degree in 2020 can only be known for certain in 2020.” When read in conjunction with the rest of the paper, the typewriter reference serves as a brief and lighthearted reminder that we, like others before us, can fall victim to nostalgic gloom and doom.

Despite its minor role in the article, commenters have been eager to mention the typewriter observation, with references ranging from the favorable (here), to the neutral (here and here), to the mildly dismissive (here and here), to the critical (here). Having given some thought to the last entry on this list, Deborah Merritt’s wonderful blog entry on Law School Cafe, I now realize that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the attention paid to the typewriter; it turns out to be an important point for S&M to make.

Merritt argues contra S&M that (1) Finch was not engaging in sky-is-falling melodrama and (2) that the typewriter “may have contributed” to a structural change in lawyers’ earnings—specifically, the creation of three-year law schools and formal schooling requirements for bar admission.  As to the first point, Merritt explains that Finch mentioned the typewriter to bolster his argument that apprenticeships had ceased to be a viable training environment for lawyers. He was not predicting that the typewriter would lead to the demise of his profession; rather, he was talking about the need for an adequate training substitute. As to the second point, Merritt points out that the New York bar adopted Finch’s recommendations, in part, because it was persuaded by his Columbia article. I add that the ABA would eventually adopt similar requirements as well, also referencing Finch’s article in the process. Merritt highlights that Finch’s main point was that the typewriter limited apprentices’ exposure to the study of important legal texts and created a difficult learning environment. As a result, Finch argued, law school was the far better educational option.

Merritt’s post is thoughtful, well-researched, and concise. Moreover, she is largely right. Finch was not engaging in nostalgic sky-is-falling reasoning. In S&M’s defense, however, the notion of a Typewriter Doomsday was not altogether uncommon in the early Twentieth Century. To take but one example, Arkansas law titan George B. Rose mentioned the following in a 1920 speech to the Tennessee Bar Association:

A great menace to the wellbeing of the bar is the disproportionate increase of its numbers. With the invention of the typewriter, the simplification of pleadings and the improved methods of travel, one lawyer can now do the work of two in the olden time; yet the proportion of lawyers to the remainder of the community has enormously increased.

Rose’s remarks were received with great applause and an honorary membership into the Tennessee bar.

More importantly, Merritt stands on solid ground when she argues that technological change contributed to a shift in the business practices of legal professionals and, in turn, the shape of American legal education. There can be little doubt that this shift can be described as “structural.”

But I disagree with Merritt insofar as she believes that a structural shift in schooling requirements weakens S&M’s paper. To the contrary, it helps the paper by providing a prima facie explanation for relative stability in the law degree’s value.

We must be mindful of the distinction between structural shifts in lawyers’ earnings and structural shifts in other aspects of the legal profession, such as educational requirements. Clearly, Merritt’s focus is the latter, and S&M’s focus is the former. And just because S&M have chosen to focus on one kind of structural shift does not mean that they have “dismissed” other structural shifts, as Merritt says. S&M readily acknowledge that the structural shifts can occur with law school enrollment:

These distinctions and widespread publicity may enable critics to influence college graduates’ career plans, the judiciary, and perhaps the future of legal education. They may have already contributed to a steep three-year decline in law school applications and enrollments.

The more critical point is that breaking up structural shifts into various types can be a useful analytic tool. Distinguishing between structural shifts in the value of a law degree and structural shifts in access to the practice of law permits us to make an important observation—namely, that it is possible for the latter to prevent the former. Critics of S&M doubt that the past performance of law degree holders is a reliable predictor of future performance. We can hypothesize that, to the extent law degree holders can insulate themselves from exogenous forces that threaten the value of their services, they will increase the stability of the degree’s value and, therefore, the reliability of predictions based on their past performance.  The underlying reasoning for the hypothesis is as follows.  All other things being held constant, those who are within service industries that have the power and willingness to manipulate the supply of available service providers will likely be better at braving exogenous shocks than those who are not. Under those circumstances, when such measures are taken to protect those already possessing the credentials necessary to perform that service, the value of those credentials will tend to be relatively stable.  Whether these measures have been or will be effective enough to stabilize the value of the law degree is a question worth considering.

There are several important gatekeepers to the practice of law: law schools, the American Bar Association, state bar associations, state supreme courts, etc. These gatekeepers possess, and sometimes use, tools that have the potential to protect the economic value of the law degree. They can change the qualifications for entry, expand or contract the domain of permissible services, raise or lower rate maximums, or regulate advertising practices, among other things.  And while a considerable minority of law degree holders do not practice law (about 40% according to the SIPP data that S&M consider), there are enough practicing lawyers to give protectionist measures a fighting chance to stabilize the overall value of the degree.

Merritt deserves much credit for bringing this observation to the fore in connection with the S&M paper, although she did not expand upon it (an excusable omission in light of the fact that we are talking about a single blog post).

Having the luxury of multiple posts, I will use Part 2 to discuss a few of the protectionist measures that gatekeepers have taken over the last century.  I will focus in particular on the measure that Merritt discusses–the advent of a law school prerequisite for admission to the bar.

Market Efficiencies Come to Legal Practice

Dustin A. Zacks has posted a fascinating article on the role of “foreclosure mills” in bringing a more corporate, bottom-line oriented mentality to law firms:

The recent housing crisis increased demand for attorneys to process foreclosures through state courts. [High volume foreclosure firms developed; they] differ in makeup from traditional large law firms. Notable characteristics of these foreclosure firms include lenders and servicers’ relentless demand for increased speed and low costs, lack of firm-specific capital at foreclosure law firms, and a factory-like atmosphere of legal practice.

[As they developed] the fastest and cheapest legal services available. . . .these firms consistently generated complaints about their conduct, including questions about their ethical decision-making and about the veracity of the pleadings and documents they filed. . . . The Article accordingly examines the curiously muted reaction from state bar associations, judges, and state legislators.

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ReInvent Law! How Technology and New Business Models Are Affecting Legal Practice

Anyone interested in where legal practice may beheaded should check out ReInvent Law Silicon Valley 2013 on March 8 at teh Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA (disclosure I am a speaker). The conference is devoted to law, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the legal services industry. Dan Katz gave and excellent talk at the mid-year AALS conference. He talked about how automated system, machine learning, and more are defeating outsourcing and changing the face of legal practice. I nodded as what he said mapped to what I learned while I was at Google. In 2008 I started writing about problems with the structure of legal education. Those issues are now with us in full force. I think Dan and this project get to issues within the legal industry that may make the what about firm jobs question obsolete (which it may already be for a host of reasons) but present opportunities going forward.

Here is how he sums up the idea:

At all price points, the legal services market is rapidly changing and this disruption represents peril & possibility. This meeting is about the possibility … about the game changers who are already building the future of this industry. This is a 1 day event featuring 40 speakers in a high energy format with specific emphasis on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. It will inspire you to consider all of the possibilities.

In that Silicon Valley way, it will be a blitz of 40 speakers covering LegalTechStartUp, Lawyer Regulation, Business of Law, Quantitative Legal Prediction, Design, 3D Printing, Driverless Cars, Legal Education, Legal Information Engineering, New Business Models, Lean Lawyering, Legal Supply Chain, Project Management, Technology Aided Access to Justice, Augmented Reality, Legal Process Outsourcing, Big Data, New Markets for Law, Virtual Law Practice, Information Visualization, E-Discovery, Legal Entrepreneurship, Legal Automation … and much more.

Tickets are Free but registration is required.
Please feel free to sign up today.

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Beyond Open: Cultures of Challenge

One of the people I follow on Google+ posted the TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan. Her desire for better training on how to challenge authority is laudable, but I think misses that corporate and other institutional cultures often squash and punish those who speak out. Her basic point is strong: seeking out those who will challenge your views and avoiding echo chambers is the best way to ensure your ideas are solid. Dr. Heffernan tells about a researcher who managed to stand up to established medical practice and change it. She tells of a colleague who managed to voice concern at his biotech company who was worried about a new product but afraid to challenge the status quo. When he did, he found that others shared his belief. He was a hero whistleblower of sorts. The later example is quite rare. Just think of Enron and the host of other debacles. I agree that it takes courage to challenge, but a corporate culture that does not punish free thinkers is important too. As the literature on scenario planning shows, sustaining a group that is permitted to think about and challenge company goals is quite difficult. And that is for a group designed to advance corporate profits. Finding room those who would, out of loyalty to a company, ask questions about plans is a deeper problem. The current focus on teamwork, loyalty, execution, speed, and results no matter what the consequences, means that lip service to openness, out of the box thinking, and pick any other management cliche you want, rule so much that it is no surprise that 85% of managers fear speaking up as Dr. Heffernan notes. So I praise the idea, but think in addition to training people to challenge, we need to build a culture of questioning.

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The Yale Law Journal Online: “The Gang of Thirty-Three: Taking the Wrecking Ball to Client Loyalty” and “In Defense of a Reasoned Dialogue About Law Firms and Their Sophisticated Clients”

The Yale Law Journal Online has published two essays on legal ethics: The Gang of Thirty-Three: Taking the Wrecking Ball to Client Loyalty by Lawrence Fox, and In Defense of a Reasoned Dialogue About Law Firms and Their Sophisticated Clients, a response to Fox’s essay by James W. Jones and Anthony E. Davis.

In The Gang of Thirty-Three, Lawrence Fox reviews the proposed “sophisticated client” amendments to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Thirty-three General Counsels at AmLaw 100 law firms submitted the proposal to the American Bar Association, requesting that some Model Rules obligations be adjusted or lessened in relationships with “sophisticated clients.”  Fox examines the suggested changes and argues that they compromise the lawyer’s most important fiduciary duty to the client. As Fox writes, lawyers must safeguard their clients’ entitlements to loyalty if they “should be entitled” to call themselves professionals at all.

James W. Jones and Anthony E. Davis respond in In Defense of a Reasoned Dialogue About Law Firms and Their Clients, arguing that the current Model Rules are outdated and no longer reflect the needs of modern law firms and their increasingly global clientele. As people who were “directly involved in the preparation of the Law Firm Proposals,” Jones and Davis offer insight into the motivations for the proposals and respond to Fox’s critique.

 

Preferred citations:

Lawrence Fox, The Gang of Thirty-Three: Taking the Wrecking Ball to Client Loyalty, 121 YALE L.J. ONLINE 567 (2012), http://yalelawjournal.org/2012/03/27/fox.html.

James W. Jones & Anthony E. Davis, In Defense of a Reasoned Dialogue About Law Firms and Their Sophisticated Clients, 121 YALE L.J. ONLINE 589 (2012), http://yalelawjournal.org/2012/03/27/jones&davis.html.

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Stealing the Throne

Ever-brilliant Web comic The Oatmeal has a great piece about piracy and its alternatives. (The language at the end is a bit much, but it is the character’s evil Jiminy Cricket talking.) It mirrors my opinion about Major League Baseball’s unwillingness to offer any Internet access to the postseason, which is hard on those of us who don’t own TVs (or subscribe to cable). Even if you don’t agree with my moral claims, it’s obvious that as the price of lawful access diverges from the price of unlawful access (which is either zero, or the expected present value of a copyright suit, which is darn near zero), infringement goes up.

So, if you want to see Game of Thrones (and I do), your options are: subscribe to cable plus HBO, or pirate. I think the series rocks, but I’m not paying $100 a month for it. If HBO expects me to do so, it weakens their moral claim against piracy.

Unconvinced? Imagine instead that HBO offers to let you watch Game of Thrones for free – but the only place on Earth you can view the series is in the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. You’re located in rural Iowa? Well, you’ve no cause for complaint! Fly to LA! I suspect that translating costs into physical costs makes the argument clearer: HBO charges not only for the content, but bundles it with one particular delivery medium. If that medium is unavailable to you, or unaffordable, you’re out of luck.

Unless, of course, you have broadband, and can BitTorrent.

As a minimum, I plan not to support any SOPA-like legislation until the content industries begin to offer viable Internet-based delivery mechanisms that at least begin to compete with piracy…

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Did Spitzer and Levitt Stoke the Financial Crisis?

Many are to blame for the financial crisis and plenty of reports and analyses have been written detailing assorted causes and assigning responsibility.  Overlooked in accepted versions of events are two fateful decisions and their context: Eliot Spitzer’s overzealous drive to oust Hank Greenberg from heading AIG, and Arthur Levitt’s governance reforms implemented at AIG shortly thereafter.

The ouster of Greenberg and transformation of AIG are pivotal events because before the ouster and reforms, AIG wrote few of the credit default swaps that became the centerpiece of the crisis, but wrote increasingly risky and unhedged swaps thereafter.  Many informed people consider it extremely unlikely or nearly impossible to imagine that, had AIG still been run by Greenberg under its traditional governance structures, the swap business at AIG could have gotten so out of hand. 

In that telling, Spitzer’s aggressive tactics to have Greenberg ousted and Levitt’s ambitious reforms were at least indirect contributing causes of the crisis and its severity.  The actions and ideas therefore deserve greater scrutiny than they have been given.  

In Spitzer’s case, it’s important to highlight how he took many steps that were at least dubious as a matter of prosecutorial ethics; in Levitt’s case, the reforms were extreme departures from traditional corporate governance. Potential lessons include the importance of prosecutors not overstepping their bounds and the value of adhering to some traditions in the development of corporate governance. Read More

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Book Review: Levin & Mather’s Lawyers in Practice: Ethical Decision Making in Context

Lawyers in Practice: Ethical Decision Making in Context, edited by Leslie C. Levin & Lynn Mather. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2012. pp. 370. $39.00

What is the best way to study the ethical world of lawyers? On a “top-down” approach, this study proceeds in two steps: first, we start with the rules of legal ethics (or, perhaps, the moral, legal or political principles that underlie those rules); second, we apply these rules and principles to particular cases that lawyers confront.

The infirmities of the top-down approach are a recurring theme of the essays collected in Lawyers in Practice. Most of the authors in this collection either champion or practice an alternative method, one that is inductive, or “bottom-up.” On this method, when studying the ethical world of lawyers, we should first examine how real-world lawyers confront real-life ethical challenges. In analyzing these responses, we should consider a variety of factors other than the rules or principles of legal ethics that drive lawyers to act in the ways that they do.

Thus, we can restate our opening question more precisely. When studying legal ethics, should we be top-downers, bottom-uppers, or both? Which is the more fundamental task: justifying the rules of legal ethics or explaining how lawyers behave when confronted with ethical challenges? Lawyers in Practice makes these broader questions salient. In this review, I want to offer a chastened case for a top-down approach, while recognizing the important (but ultimately complementary) role that bottom-up methods can play in studying the ethical world of lawyers.

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Before exploring this broader topic, here are some vitals on the book. Lawyers in Practice is a collection of essays that were originally presented at a conference at the University of Buffalo Law School. Levin and Mather provide an introductory essay and short epilogue summarizing some main themes, and essays by David Wilkins and Elizabeth Chambliss explore some methodological issues for the sociolegal study of lawyers’ ethics.

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