Category: Legal Ethics


Bartering Legal Services for Sex

Sometimes I think that lawyers unfairly get a bad rap. Most lawyers work hard, comply with all of the ethical rules, and respect their clients. However, there are a few that repeatedly violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, hurting their clients and threatening the public’s trust in the legal profession. Unfortunately, they continue to practice law.

Imagine an attorney who has been admonished, reprimanded, and censured four times in a 6-year period for failing to communicate with clients and for recordkeeping violations, and who is later held ineligible to practice law for 15 months for failure to pay into the state’s Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection among other things.  Imagine that this attorney (who continues to practice law during this period of ineligibility) offers discounted fees to three female bankruptcy clients and to the daughter of another client in exchange for sexual favors. (He told the daughter of a bankruptcy client who could not afford his fee that he would forgive her father’s debt if she would meet him “in a hotel room for three hours.”)  You can read the rest of the stipulated facts here.

Read More


Could You Cheat On an Open-Book Issue Spotter?

Claims of cheating by college students are increasingly common.  Law schools are not immune to the problem, though it is rarely talked about.  That’s true even though the likelihood of being caught is (probably) higher than in college (because one professor, not multiple RAs, do the grading) and the consequences are more dire (because cheaters, even if not expelled, should be reported to the Bar’s character and fitness board).  For exams where the “game” depends on quickly uncovering information — multiple choice exams, especially when questions are copied from previous years, or closed book essays — it is my sense that cheating is on the rise.  Similarly, plagiarism on long-form writing is cheaper than it used to be, and thus more common.  As compared to colleges, law schools are ill-equipped to deal with these sets of problems, as they lack a tradition of centralized pedagogical coordination, and thus the resources and know-how that might enable technological solutions of cheating.

That all said, I’ve always comforted myself that if you give an issue-spotting exam that is open book, even immoral maximizing students won’t cheat.  By making exams open-book, you prevent the easiest form of cheating – a student getting informational advantages over others by looking up cases or treatises.  All that is left is discussion between test takers, which is prohibited by the honor code and which is a form of cheating.  I tend to think that such coordination is quite rare.  Though two students working together might “spot” more issues than either alone, it’s just as possible that group think will revert them to the mean answer – the easiest to see issues.  Moreover, “A” answers are distinguished (mostly) not by spotting issues but by discussing them.  Two students together would run a terrible risk if their discussions looked alike to the grader.  Thus, open-book monster issue spotters are structurally difficult to game, and the best defense against cheaters – at least until we replace our current grading system with a computer.


The Posthumous Case for Impeaching Abe Fortas

Recall 1968 and the failed confirmation of Abe Fortas to be Chief Justice of the United States. President Lyndon Johnson had announced he was not seeking reelection; Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon menaced in the wings. Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his resignation—contingent upon the Senate’s confirmation of his successor—and thereby auspiciously created one last vacancy for LBJ to fill. LBJ nominated Associate Justice Abe Fortas as the inside candidate. Homer Thornberry was nominated to fill Fortas’s to-be vacated seat.

Republican Senators (encouraged quietly by candidate Nixon) together with the Dixiecrats blocked the Fortas nomination in hopes that Nixon would fill the seat with a nominee of his choice. As grounds for opposing confirmation, they cited, among other grounds, the Justice’s unusually close relationship to LBJ—an open secret in official Washington.

Under oath, Fortas decided to put the allegations to rest with this testimony: “Let me say in the first place—and make this absolutely clear—that since I have been a Justice, the President of the United States has never, directly or indirectly, approximately or remotely, talked to me about anything before the Court or that might come before the Court. I want to make that absolutely clear.”

Except, that really wasn’t the truth—far from it.

Read More


Book Review: Daniel Markovits, A Modern Legal Ethics

A Modern Legal Ethics, by Daniel Markovits.  Princeton University Press: New York 2008.  Pp. 361.  $29.95

Daniel Markovits’s A Modern Legal Ethics could change the way we think about legal ethics, although not necessarily far enough or in only the right directions.

The main argument is elegant and provocative.  Markovits contends that a central issue in legal ethics should be the “problem of integrity.”  Lawyers must be able to integrate their professional commitments into their moral lives.  This is the most important insight of the book.  Other commentators have noted the problem of integrity, but Markovits offers the most sustained and nuanced discussion.  His argument opens up new avenues for thinking about the rules governing lawyers.

On Markovits’s telling, the lawyer’s integrity is directly challenged by her professional obligations.  Good lawyering requires what, on ordinary morality, would be considered lying and cheating.  These “lawyerly vices” are endemic to the adversarial system, so they can’t be cured by tailoring the rules governing lawyers.  Neither is avoiding these vices an option, given their incompatibility with integrity.

For Markovits, there are better and worse ways to solve this problem.  Most theories of legal ethics utilize what he calls (after David Luban) the “adversarial system excuse,” or the consequentialist view that the lawyerly vices are justified as part of a legal system that is just overall.  Here, if the overall practice is justified, then the integrity issues fall away.  Impersonal approaches can only accidentally or incidentally resolve integrity problems.

Interpersonal theories of legal ethics (which he calls “Kantian” approaches) don’t fare any better.  On these approaches, principles of legal ethics are acceptable only if they fulfill specified criteria (e.g., that they could be reasonably consented to, that they could not be reasonably rejected, etc.).  Yet, Markovits argues, concentrating on fulfilling such criteria raises the same problem as with impersonal approaches: any resolution to the problem of integrity is a byproduct, rather than an important end in itself.

Markovits thinks we must take the “lawyer’s point of view” in order to solve the problem of integrity in the right way, which requires a “first-personal” approach to morality.  Markovits calls his version “role-based redescription.”  If there were a distinctive, morally worthy role for lawyering, then the lawyer could preserve her integrity by redescribing her professional obligations to lie and cheat as requirements of fulfilling this role.

Read More


The “It Will Never Happen to Me” Mentality

We started our spring semester today at Maryland, and I am teaching one of my favorite courses, Legal Profession. Having faced ethical dilemmas in practice (and unfortunately seen very talented lawyers disciplined, disbarred and jailed), I believe that this course is extremely valuable. I suspect, however, that most of our students disagree with me, which is why they typically wait until the last semester of law school to take this required course. In fact, the very first time I taught Legal Profession, I asked my class of 75 3Ls to raise their hands if they would “elect” to take Legal Profession if it was not required for graduation. Only one student raised her hand; I promptly commented that she was perhaps the smartest woman in the room. Since that first year, more students have raised their hands, but I attribute at least part of that increase to a note in prior students’ outlines to “raise hand when Prof. Harner asks . . . .”

Why the resistance to learning, understanding and appreciating the ethical rules governing lawyers’ conduct? Some students have the ill-conceived notion that the study of ethics is boring. (I actually happen to think the topic, particularly the hard questions in the grey areas, is really interesting, controversial and timely; ever watch an episode of Boston Legal?) But for many students, at least based on my conversations, their lack of enthusiasm for the course stems from the simple belief that they are moral individuals who would never act unethically. It is the old “it will never happen to me” mentality.

Unfortunately, I think individuals, including lawyers and business executives, fall prey to this mentality far too frequently. (For an interesting discussion of similar psychological traps, see here and here.) For example, a lawyer may be a moral individual but the pressure of the practice—client demands, senior partner demands, billables, family obligations, etc.—and even good old human greed can blur the line between right and wrong. Likewise, not all executives who get caught up in corporate scandals or pursue excessive risk are bad people; rather, these individuals often get trapped by the same pressures as lawyers. And the consequences can be devastating for the individual and those around her.

I do not know how we correct this mentality or if we can change this aspect of human nature. For my part, I try sensitize my students to the issue and help them decide what kind of person and lawyer they want to be before they enter the profession. I think the use of peer reporting and whistleblower provisions may help curb some of these human tendencies (in the lawyer context, consider Model Rules of Professional Conduct 8.3 and 1.13), but we need to stay focused on the human side of the problem as we continue to draft and amend rules and regulations to govern lawyers, business executives and others. (This side of the corporate risk management problem was thoughtfully raised in a comment to one of my prior posts. See here.) It is a difficult issue, but one worth tackling.


Acknowledging Failure at the Department of Justice

Today, the Department of Justice announced its appointment of Andrew Goldsmith as the new national coordinator for its criminal discovery initiatives.  According to the press release, DOJ created the position to “improve its criminal discovery and case management policies and procedures.”  His responsibilities include creating an online directory of resources on d120px-Surrender_of_Cornwallisiscovery issues available to all prosecutors at their desktop, producing a handbook on discovery and case management, implementing training for paralegal and law enforcement agents, among other things.  A few paragraphs into the announcement comes an important, and revealing, note about a recent review of DOJ practices and policies: “That review determined that incidents of discovery failures were rare in comparison to the number of cases prosecuted.  However, the Department has instituted a number of steps intended to further ensure the Department complies with its discovery obligations.”

Those oblique sentences seemingly refer to the cases against the Blackwater guards and former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens that were dismissed or dropped out due to discovery mistakes by federal prosecutors.  While discovery failures might have been rare, they nevertheless packed a punch.  For instance, in the corruption trial of former Senator Stevens, the judge chastised federal prosecutors for letting a witness leave town.  Federal prosecutors got in trouble for submitting erroneous evidence and were reprimanded for failing to turn over key witness statements.  An FBI agent complained about the prosecution team’s alleged misconduct.  Attorney General Eric Holder asked the judge to drop the case after learning that prosecutors failed to turn over notes that contradicted testimony from their key witnesses.  A federal judge recently dismissed charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused of killing 14 Iraqi citizens in a shooting in a ruling that sharply criticized the tactics of DOJ prosecutors in handing the case.  The judge found that prosecutors and agent had improperly used statements that the guards provided to the State Department in the hours and days after the shooting.

The appointment of a National Coordinator for Criminal Discovery Initiatives sends an important message.  The DOJ has seemingly acknowledged its failures, despite suggesting their rarity.  It also expressed its commitment to excellence, though for some this may come a little to late.  This reminds me of the important work that my former colleague and now Michigan Law professor Sonja Starr is doing regarding prosecutorial misconduct, including her superb piece Sentence Reduction as a Remedy for Prosecutorial Misconduct, 97 Georgetown L.J. 1509 (2009).


Lawyers: Don’t Trade on Inside Information!

In my corporations classes, I urge my students planning a career in corporate and securities law to resist the ubiquitous opportunities and occasional temptations to trade on the basis of material non-public information. I offer in terrorum encouragement by emphasizing that all trades are tracked and that enforcement authorities periodically review them for unusual patterns. Those are traced back to professional advisors, including law firms, having been involved in related deals. It is not difficult for authorities to catch these violations.

Along with dozens of others apparently caught up in the ongoing insider trading scandal at Galleon, today, an associate at the prestigious firm, Ropes & Gray, is alleged to have violated securities laws by using confidential information obtained from clients to profit in securities trades. Lawyers, as fiduciaries, who obtain material information through client representation, violate their fiduciary obligations and hence federal securities laws when they trade on it.  See United States v. O’Hagan, 541 U.S. 642 (1997).

Over at the Wall Street Journal blog, Ashby Jones is asking how common insider trading is among lawyers. This is obviously a difficult empirical question. I can add, however, that (a) in the four years that I practiced law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of my fellow-associates engaged in this activity (with his brother) and authorities prosecuted him (in 1995) for it and (b) during the two years before that when I was a paralegal at Skadden, Arps, one of the associates for whom I worked did so (with his sister) and he was likewise caught (in 1990). 

In addition, the famous case embracing the so-called misappropriation theory of insider trading, United States v. O’Hagan, 541 U.S. 642 (1997), involved a lawyer—a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, representing Grand Met in its acquisition of Pillsbury, who generated nearly $4 million in unlawful trading gains from the knowledge.

I repeat to my students, past and present, and all lawyers: do not do this!


No Loyalty to Dead Clients?

I know that this is all perfectly kosher – there’s no disclosure of any confidence, and any potential representation has long-since lapsed.  But watch the following and tell me if you agree that this is  more than a little bit unseemly?  (My sense is someone is trying to avoid a malpractice suit.)

(H/T: TNC)


Scandal and Conflict of Interest in Formula One

10238_renault_f1A major cheating scandal has erupted at the highest level of international auto racing. After an investigation by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the ING Renault Formula One Team announced it does not dispute the FIA’s charge that the team illegally conspired with its driver Nelson Piquet, Jr. to aid his teammate Fernando Alonso’s victory at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix by crashing intentionally during the race. Piquet crashed on lap fourteen of the race, ending his day and requiring deployment of a safety car (race cars stack up in order, with passing prohibited) while stewards cleaned up the course. Piquet’s crash was incredibly well-timed for his teammate Alonso and vaulted Alonso to a race lead that he would never relinquish. Alonso had mechanical problems during qualifying and started the race in fifteenth position on a narrow street circuit where overtaking is difficult. Piquet’s crash came immediately after Alonso had pitted for fuel, but before the rest of the field had done so, and as a result, Alonso promptly assumed the race lead as the other cars pitted in turn during the caution period. The perfect timing of Piquet’s crash for another Renault driver was suspicious from the start: Safety cars are somewhat rare in Formula One, but Piquet’s crash occurred where the stewards couldn’t quickly remove his car, and what is more, Alonso’s race strategy to pit so early was unusual—most cars starting at the back of the field load up on fuel and pit as late as possible, while Alonso did the opposite in the improbable hope of exactly what happened.

Nothing would have come of suspicions about Alonso’s victory, except that Renault fired Piquet as a driver this August, about a year after the race. Immediately following his dismissal, Piquet launched a public campaign against Renault managing director Flavio Briatore and then confessed to the FIA that he had crashed intentionally at Renault’s direction. Piquet claims, and Renault no longer denies, that Briatore and Renault director of engineering Pat Symonds approached him before the race about whether he would be willing to crash intentionally early in the race. Piquet explains that he “was in a very fragile and emotional state of mind . . . brought about by intense stress due to the fact that Mr. Briatore had refused to inform [him] of whether or not [his] driver’s contract would be renewed.” As a result of this developing scandal, Briatore and Symonds have resigned, and it isn’t clear what penalties the FIA will apply against Renault and the various parties involved. The FIA disqualified McLaren-Mercedes outright from the constructor’s championship and levied a $100 million penalty following a similarly appalling scandal two years ago.

The additional wrinkle here is that the scandal features an astounding conflict of interest at its heart. Briatore, while acting as managing director of Renault, served also as Piquet’s professional manager through a separate company. In other words, Briatore sat on both sides of the table in Piquet’s dealings with Renault. To be candid, Piquet has always struck me as an immature, unsympathetic character living a charmed life in no small part because his father is a three-time Formula One champion as a driver. But a driver’s seat in Formula One is incredibly difficult to secure, and it isn’t surprising that even Piquet may have felt overwhelming pressure to compromise himself (as well as risk serious injury) for someone serving as both his personal representative and his boss at the same time. Indeed, Briatore’s conflict of interest is not unusual in the incestuous world of Formula One. Briatore’s company actually has a similar arrangement with Piquet’s replacement, Romain Grosjean, as well as some type of management relationship with virtually every F1 driver employed by Renault during the last decade, including Alonso. As far as I know, neither the FIA nor the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association requires certification for driver’s managers or representatives anywhere comparable to the standards set by the unions for professional athletes in American sports leagues. It appears that the Renault scandal may finally prod the FIA or World Motor Sports Council to action on the issue.


David Gray on “Publishing Ethics”

dgrayToday, I would like to share a post by my colleague and former guest blogger David Gray on publishing ethics.  Here is his post:

My thanks to Danielle for granting me this one-time-post-guest spot to pose a few questions to the Co-Op community about law review submission practices. What follows is from me, and should in no way be attributed to Danielle.

I am at best a neophyte, so apologize straight away if this is ground that has been covered elsewhere, but I have been thinking a lot lately about normative issues germane to the process for placing articles in law reviews. I have seen and read with great interest a number of blogs, websites, and SSRN postings relating to practical and strategic considerations, but have yet to see a sustained discussion of what, if any, rules of conduct or decorum we ought to respect along the way. After the jump I stumble through some of my sketchy thoughts and solicit views, advice, and anecdotes from authors, law review editors, and others in a much better position than I am in to inform this discussion.

Read More