As I mentioned in a previous post, I teach (and really enjoy teaching) Legal Profession. In my prior post, I noted my sense that students resist ethics courses because they view themselves as moral, ethical people who will be moral, ethical lawyers. That trend has continued this semester, but I am also hearing more cynicism about the profession than in the past.
Now, it may be that I am teaching 1Ls this semester, as opposed to 3Ls who simply want to graduate and do not want to stir the pot. (And I have to say that I have a very thoughtful and engaged group of 1Ls.) It may be that law students are questioning their decision to enter the profession in different ways and on different levels than in the past because of the current environment. Indeed, given the amount of money these students invest in their legal education, they must cringe when they read the newspapers—or more likely the Internet—these days. (For recent stories regarding downsizing in the profession, see here, here and here.) Regardless of the reason, the sentiment is striking. I should note, however, that I am not surprised by it given the generally negative public perception of lawyers.
So what type of cynicism am I hearing? We recently were discussing what constitutes lawyer misconduct, a lawyer’s obligation to report the misconduct of colleagues and a lawyer’s obligation to disclose her own misconduct to the client. That last duty always gets them, and we typically discuss in detail the origins of this duty (see here, here and here) and the circumstances that might give rise to the duty basically to tell your client that you made a mistake. In several discussions with my students both in- and outside class, the common questions have been along the lines of: “Well Prof. Harner, this all sounds great in theory, but who actually reports misconduct in the real world? And why would you ever report your own misconduct?” These are very honest and sobering questions.
I do my best to instill in my students the importance of the self-reporting nature of the profession and the value (both personal and professional) to being an ethical, honest lawyer. We discuss the trust and integrity that underscore the lawyer-client relationship and what happens to legal process when that trust is breached. And I think they get all of that. But I also think they are sensitive to life in the real world, and the pressures they will be facing—assuming they can actually get jobs—as associates subject in many respects to the whims and behaviors of more senior lawyers and clients. As one of my students told me in discussing ABC’s new series, The Deep End (see also here), “You know Prof. Harner, the associates always find a happy resolution to ethical dilemmas on television, but I doubt it is really that easy in practice; being ethical and calling a colleague on her misconduct could end your career.”
I think my students are raising valid concerns; these certainly are not new concerns but perhaps they have renewed importance as students are more and more concerned about getting and then keeping jobs. I find that shock therapy helps drive the point home for some students, so I give them many examples of lawyers being disbarred and note the junior associate who now faces sanctions and discipline in connection with the Qualcomm discovery litigation (see here and here). And I hope that when they face that hard decision in practice, they will make the right one.