Tuesday, January 26, 2010



Over the last few days, I have been paging through my old law school ethics casebook, The Law and Ethics of Lawyering (Foundation Press 4th Ed. 2005). When I took this course in law school, I immediately recognized it was different. No other course investigated ethical quandaries in law practice. Sadly, our professor seemed less concerned with the abstract philosophical dimension to the course than with its technical aspects. After all, it is hard to get lawyers to understand ethics because lawyers understand law.

Contrary to popular belief, law and ethics are distinct from each other. Ethics are internal, subjective conceptions concerning the "right" decisions to take in life's ever-changing circumstances. Ethics depends on individual conscience. Law, by contrast, is nothing more than an official collection of written rules that a State formulates to govern external behavior. Law does not require conscience; it requires only technical compliance.

Applying these definitions, it is easy to see that a person can act legally without being ethical at all.

I have written at length about the incongruous relationship between ethics and law. The relationship is uneasy not just because ethics and law stand at opposite philosophical poles. Rather, the relationship is doubly uneasy because "lawyering" in America is adversarial. It is hard to adhere to ethical norms when you are constantly trying to "beat" your opponent and win money. By the same token, American lawyering is extremely commercial. Successful lawyers win their cases because they want to make money. This makes them "result-oriented." That's bad for ethics because ethics is less concerned with results than with means. An ethical person refuses to act in certain ways or even conceive certain actions. Put another way, ethics disqualifies particular means from consideration. Yet a "result-oriented" person--like the average American lawyer--refuses to take any means off the table. When you want to win, you don't refuse to play all your cards.

Yet this is how lawyers must think. After all, they serve the law, not ethics. The law prescribes conduct through language. Lawyers advise clients how to exploit ambiguities in language to avoid the law's reach. All language is imperfect. The law is no exception. Lawyers seize on the law's linguistic imperfections every day to make a living. How can ethics survive in an atmosphere where everyone just wants to game the system?

Sure, lawyers all must take "ethics courses" just like I did. But teaching "ethics" to a lawyer is something like teaching dining room etiquette to a wild animal. Law students take the ethics course because they must: It is required to graduate. And even then, most students view the course as a meaningless formality. Rather than using the course to cultivate ethical sensibilities and become "ethical people," they learn how to read "official ethics rules," then tailor their behavior to avoid censure from professional boards. In essence, then, the "ethics" course devolves into yet another course on law: How to read written standards and make arguments designed to exploit weaknesses in language.

But I am not your average guy. I might have done well in law school, but I hesitate to call myself a "lawyer." No, I am too interested in theory to be a lawyer. I am too interested in ideas and philosophy to blindly advocate a client's selfish financial interests until I die or retire. Put simply, I think deeply about the law and its relationship to civilization. That disqualifies me from everyday "law practice." My commitment to theory might drastically reduce my income. But it dramatically increases my understanding about the world we inhabit.

When I read text from my old ethics casebook, I relate it to all my other ideas about law and civilization. Recently, for example, I re-read Oliver Wendell Holmes' musing on the lawyer's role in American society. He said: "If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good man, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or out of it, it the vaguer sanctions of conscience." The Path of the Law (1920) at p. 169.

Holmes' remark closely tracks my own views about the law and human nature. In short, Holmes understands that the law essentially serves "bad men" who just want to know whether they will lose their bodily freedom or their money, not "good men" who seek answers in the "vaguer sanctions of conscience." In essence, Holmes suggests that the law is fundamentally cynical; it merely provides explicit written standards that enable men to modify their behavior for maximum personal gain. And because the law is cynical, so too are the men who empower it: They just want to enrich themselves.

Holmes calls such men "bad." But in fact, he just means "selfish." It is not necessarily morally "bad" to be selfish. But no one would dispute that "selfishness" is neither noble nor especially praiseworthy. No one remembers men who just want to remain free and make the most money they can. They are selfish; and the law exists for them. Bad or not, the law advances an entirely selfish view of human nature. And there is nothing really wrong with that, because the law holds power over money, property and bodily comfort. Those are selfish men's concerns.

If the law only serves "bad men," where does that leave the "good men?" Holmes draws an important distinction here that mirrors the distinction between law and ethics. He says the law stands for selfish men and their petty motivations, not men who find "reasons for their conduct…in the vaguer sanctions of conscience." By that reasoning, "good men" must have nobler motivations than property acquisition and freedom from jail. "Good men" must craft their lives to follow the "vaguer sanctions of conscience," not just cynical legal commands. In essence, then, "good men" are ethical. Unlike law, ethics is internal. It depends on conscience. An ethical man looks within his own heart to know whether something is right or wrong, not a statute book. He does not exploit ambiguity to slither away from consequences. That is noble and "good."

Does this mean that a person who depends upon his own conscience has no place in the law? It almost appears so. After all, to properly serve the law, one must be cynical. One must look at it as a "bad man." If the law enshrines the "bad man's" motivations, then conscience apparently has no place in it. An ethical man might be cynical about others' motivations. But he will not always act cynically. True allegiance to the law, however, requires constant attention to cynical concerns. Litigants would not win their cases if they suddenly started following their own conscience rather than their hunger for money. If ethics means allegiance to conscience and "higher" motivations than the body and property, then it really has little place in the law. Holmes said as much.

Later in my casebook, I ran across an article that criticized Holmes' "bad man" argument. See William H. Simon, The Ideology of Advocacy, 1978 Wis. L. Rev. 29. In it, Professor Simon contended that Holmes' cynical conception about law compromised clients' "individual dignity" and "personal autonomy" because it required lawyers to assume that all clients have the same ends: Property and bodily comfort. The professor found it distressing that the law induces lawyers to both presume what clients want and "to lobby for a peculiar theory of human nature." Id. at 30-52. He found it lamentable that the law basically reduces "individual clients" to one-dimensional "hypothetical people" with a "few crude ends," namely "maximization of freedom of movement and the accumulation of wealth." Id.

I strongly disagree with this critique. First, while I agree that human individuality is precious, a person cedes any claim to uniqueness the moment he seeks legal redress. When a person invokes the law, he is not trying to soothe his conscience or prove his individuality. Rather, he is trying to win as much property as possible or to avoid going to prison. No matter what a client says, "justice" and "right" are not the main objects for his decision to take legal action. He takes legal action because he seeks to gain what the law can offer. The law does not offer abstract justice or right. It offers property and freedom from bodily restraint. This is all a person can hope to win from legal intervention. It is sheer ignorance--or sheer delusion--to believe it can deliver anything else. Courts do not award "good feelings" or a "sense of justice" with their rulings. No, they enter judgment in particular monetary amounts. If a client wants a spiritual reward, he should go to a church, not a lawyer's office.

Second, there is nothing wrong with imputing goals to a client. The law is not about conscience. It is not about ethics. There is a reason courts are called "Courts of Law," not "Courts of Ethics" or "Courts of Conscience." Clients could rightly complain about sacrificing their individuality if they sought to voice their conscience or their ethics. But when they file suit in a law court, they necessarily subscribe to far baser values. The law can deliver only money or bodily freedom. There is nothing wrong with imputing those base goals to a client, because those are the only things he can hope to gain from the law. If this renders lawyers "lobbyists for a peculiar view of human nature," it is not the lawyer's fault. It is the law's fault. The law is about cynicism, not conscience.

That is why the law really does exist to serve "bad men." And that is also why "good men" have little place in it. Once conscience enters the picture, law supplies no answer. Only ethics can appease the conscience.

Consequently, ethics and law do not mix. I don't care what any Bar Association, court or law professor says to the contrary. Law is external compliance. Ethics is conscientious belief.

And law cares not a fig for either conscience or belief.


Anonymous said...

Great article.

The old standby is the law protects the little people. I think we can see how this is just not so.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Oh, hell no. Whoever circulated that lie needs to be horsewhipped. Along with the guy who said that all commercial transactions are "as if between equal copartners."