This article tries to address the need to teach ethics at law schools after the corporate meltdowns we have seen during the recent past years. In many cases, one of the most important factors that triggered these crises was the legal but not moral decisions that the executives made.
During the last two years we've seen many corporations reaching the point of crisis situation. As we already know, one of the most important factors -among others- of those crashes (AIG, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Enron, etc.) has been the questionable moral decisions made by the executives of said companies. In many cases, they decided legal aspects without appropriate ethical considerations. They didn't overstep the legal line. In such situations, we should ask ourselves: are those meltdowns a call for change? Does legal education require of us other considerations and responsibilities? In other words, do we need to teach ethics at law schools?
The need to teach ethics at law schools is one of the most interesting and current debates at law schools in the United States. Regarding this issue, Fareed Zakaria recently wrote in Newsweek that "most of what happened over the past decade was legal (..) but very few people acted responsibly, honorably or nobly. And no political system -capitalist, socialist or otherwise- can work without a sense of ethics and values at its center. No matter what reforms we put in place, without common sense, judgment and an ethical standard, they will prove inadequate." Finally, this political analyst has said that our situation is not a "crisis of capitalism. It is a crisis… ultimately of ethics."
In the world of lawyers, everybody knows that you can act legally without necessarily acting morally; you can act within the law but not necessarily in an honest manner. The problem is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of deep moral roots that inspire the deeds: an absence of ethical principles. Actually, what many people ask of a lawyer is if something is allowed by the law, thinking that what isn't prohibited, is therefore allowed.
In the U.S., after the political scandal known as Watergate a few decades ago, the state bars raised the standard for the level of character and honesty requirements to become a lawyer. Additionally, the American Bar Association created the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct. This was included as part of the bar exam. Whereas that was good it was not enough, as we can readily witness nowadays. In fact, as Christina Harrison says in "The National Jurist" (October 2009, vol. 19, nº 2) what they didn't do was "to infuse ethics into their students' total curriculum." In this context, we also must pay attention to the 2007 report "Educating lawyers: preparation for the profession of law." On this survey it's said that in the first year, law students are warned not to let their moral concerns or compassion for the people "cloud their legal analyses" in the cases they study.
On the other hand, a few law schools are leading the change to infuse ethical principles into the students. For instance, Amy Timmer, dean of students and professionalism at Cooley Law School, created the Center for Ethics, Service and Professionalism. She was conscious of the importance of ethics to help the students become "mature" and honorable lawyers. Within the plan of that Center is incorporated a student Oath of Honor and a Personal Code of Conduct, extensive pro-bono services for disaster areas and collaboration with the local state bar to address current ethical problems in the profession.
As regards to our country, it's a well known fact that law schools are reluctant to teach about ethics arguing that it's a subject very close to religion, and no one law school must teach about that. The main goal of a law school is to teach law: how you can apply the law, how to act within the law… additionally, many law professors think that character or ethical values must be taught at home. It is thought that not every student could have the same set of values.
In my opinion, that doesn't impede the fact that we can discover a common set of values that everybody agrees upon: tell the truth, act honestly, a commitment that incorporates social justice to serve those who are most in need. In short, there is a common sense to justice that includes a desire for personal integrity. In fact, the main goal that these teachings try to reach is the advantages of acting morally, not only legally: to become a very good lawyer, but above all, a honest lawyer. If no one teaches law students these ethical considerations, then they must learn them in the future. Unfortunately, they will either learn it at a high cost or never learn it at all. I think that the present time is a good time to debate about the ethics issue as part of the preparatory program in law schools. Students will be the better for it. They will be better prepared to make those crucial legal decisions later on in years. If we don't do it now, will they be able to learn it later on to overcome other realities as pressure, money, power, etc.- in making professional decisions?
All of the above reminds me what one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. wrote many years ago: "is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea."