Monday, February 22, 2010
Honored to be here for a guest post. In choosing my topic, I’ve decided to forgo the chance to, ahem, promote my own recent torts publications and instead write in response to the request I’ve heard most often from colleagues over the years: Any suggestions of how a Torts instructor can integrate professional responsibility or legal ethics into this course?
This question broaches the pervasive method. Professional responsibility folks have long debated the issue of venue: Should this subject occupy its own course, or instead pervade a larger curriculum? I’ve expounded on the issue elsewhere, referring to the pioneering pedagogy that Deborah Rhode staked out decades ago. For now let’s assume that you are interested in making occasional references to legal ethics or professional responsibility issues as they are presented by the material you cover in your Torts class.
Disclaimer: I am not necessarily advising you to do so. Everything we put into our classes displaces something else we could do with the same unit of time. No matter which political ideologies we hold, we all believe in the microeconomics tenet of scarcity!
That said, it’s nice to gain an option. So I’ve gathered a half-dozen torts-and-professional- responsibility points that won’t demand too much preparation effort or time in class. They have the almost paradoxical virtue of making what you do in class more theoretical and more hands-on practical. You can emphasize either aspect.
1. The contingent fee. Whenever your text includes a case with a plaintiff who appears to lack wealth, you can tell students how personal injury lawyers typically get paid for their work. From there, mention ethics issues that accompany the contingent fee, which is an attorney’s gamble that prosecuting a tort claim for a client will pay off. And from there…
2. … you can introduce conflicts of interest between lawyer and client by asking which conditions would make a lawyer want to settle while a client wants to press on toward trial. Then ask what would make a lawyer want to go to trial while the client prefers fast cash. You might be surprised—at least I’ve been surprised—to hear first-year students argue that the lawyer’s preference should prevail.
3. Truth versus partisanship. Do plaintiffs tell the truth under oath about, say, their own lack of comparative negligence? For scrutiny of the other side of the caption, you can use cases involving entity defendants, which invite attention to concealment of evidence and well-financed stonewalling.
4. Solicitation. Students often don’t know that a lawyer may not approach an injured stranger and offer to represent this person in pursuit of legal redress for the injury. I’ve long been fascinated by this prohibition (and have explored what it has, and doesn't have, in common with the criminalization of solicitation in the context of street prostitution). The ban seldom emerges from cases in a Torts text, but you can often find it just below the surface. For example, in the book I now use, one decision speaks disparagingly of plaintiffs’ experts, implying that they had tried to use dishonest boilerplate affidavits. Rejection of their testimony can open a conversation about mass torts as lawyer-driven business enterprises rather than responses to the needs of hurt individuals.
5. Witness coaching. Consider the way judicial authors use “the facts” to support the decisions they make to permit or bar recovery in tort. How do these judges know what happened? Many of the cases in your text will be appellate opinions reviewing lower court judgments following a trial. This case law may raise the possibility that witnesses (especially plaintiffs) were coached by their attorneys. I recommend the law review article by Bill Hodes defending this practice. His thesis, which you can summarize in class, is provocative.
6. Tort liability for attorney misbehavior. Sometimes Torts gives students the impression that anybody can sue anybody for anything. It can be refreshing to turn this plenary breadth against our own occupation. The Goldberg, Sebok & Zipursky text that I use gives instructors an early opportunity to raise the subject by presenting duty—including the limited duty to prevent economic loss—up front. Another convenient point to raise this issue arises when you reach a medical malpractice case. “That’s medical malpractice,” you can say by way of opening a discussion. “What would be legal malpractice? How might a lawyer cause injury by failing to fulfill the standard of care?” Tort liability for “abuse of process” and “malicious prosecution” can come up later, if you so desire.
- Anita Bernstein
- Anita Bernstein
Anita and Stuart Subotnick Professor of Law
Brooklyn Law School
 A couple of jurisdictions do permit this overture.
 John C.P. Goldberg, Anthony J. Sebok, & Benjamin C. Zipursky, Tort Law: Responsibility and Redress 242 (4th ed. 2008) (reprinting Aldridge v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 34 F. Supp. 2d 1010 (D. Md. 1999)).
 W. William Hodes, The Professional Duty to Horseshed Witnesses--Zealously, Within the Bounds of the Law, 30