Sunday, May 28, 2017
This Fall semester, in addition to teaching my Penn State Law clinical students, I will teach Professional Responsibility. When I was in law school, if memory serves, it was called "Legal Ethics". I really wish I could reclaim that course name.
Professional Responsibility is the industry standard now--I get it. The codes of conduct in most states use some version of that language in their titles. Pennsylvania, for example, has Rules of Professional Conduct, not Rules of Legal Ethics.
But the casebook for my course is called The Law and Ethics of Lawyering (my own emphasis added). And it happens to be the same casebook used in the Legal Ethics course I took long ago and far away, albeit a new edition. I know that for sure because I saved that book. It's sitting on my office bookshelf beside the new casebook I'll soon pore over to prepare to teach the course for the first time. So what? Why am I fixated on the word "ethics" as it relates to this course?
I think our students could benefit from a little more education on ethics. Knowledge of the sources and norms about ethical obligations, a humanistic sense of right and wrong, is fundamental to the legal profession. We owe it to future lawyers to engage them in the study of the underpinnings of our profession's ideals about the outer limits of acceptable human behavior and our systemic regulation of it. To my mind, "professional responsibility" conceptually strikes me as just a few shades lighter than "malpractice avoidance". We must be better than that. Lawyers must not simply avoiding bad behavior. We must cultivate and thus deeply understand good--ethical--behavior.
It's a bit late to rename my course, but I do plan to re-brand it, class by class and student by student. Maybe I'll discover this is is semantics; a distinction without a difference, once I'm engaged in the course itself. Stay tuned . . . .