The “It Will Never Happen to Me” Mentality

We started our spring semester today at Maryland, and I am teaching one of my favorite courses, Legal Profession. Having faced ethical dilemmas in practice (and unfortunately seen very talented lawyers disciplined, disbarred and jailed), I believe that this course is extremely valuable. I suspect, however, that most of our students disagree with me, which is why they typically wait until the last semester of law school to take this required course. In fact, the very first time I taught Legal Profession, I asked my class of 75 3Ls to raise their hands if they would “elect” to take Legal Profession if it was not required for graduation. Only one student raised her hand; I promptly commented that she was perhaps the smartest woman in the room. Since that first year, more students have raised their hands, but I attribute at least part of that increase to a note in prior students’ outlines to “raise hand when Prof. Harner asks . . . .”

Why the resistance to learning, understanding and appreciating the ethical rules governing lawyers’ conduct? Some students have the ill-conceived notion that the study of ethics is boring. (I actually happen to think the topic, particularly the hard questions in the grey areas, is really interesting, controversial and timely; ever watch an episode of Boston Legal?) But for many students, at least based on my conversations, their lack of enthusiasm for the course stems from the simple belief that they are moral individuals who would never act unethically. It is the old “it will never happen to me” mentality.

Unfortunately, I think individuals, including lawyers and business executives, fall prey to this mentality far too frequently. (For an interesting discussion of similar psychological traps, see here and here.) For example, a lawyer may be a moral individual but the pressure of the practice—client demands, senior partner demands, billables, family obligations, etc.—and even good old human greed can blur the line between right and wrong. Likewise, not all executives who get caught up in corporate scandals or pursue excessive risk are bad people; rather, these individuals often get trapped by the same pressures as lawyers. And the consequences can be devastating for the individual and those around her.

I do not know how we correct this mentality or if we can change this aspect of human nature. For my part, I try sensitize my students to the issue and help them decide what kind of person and lawyer they want to be before they enter the profession. I think the use of peer reporting and whistleblower provisions may help curb some of these human tendencies (in the lawyer context, consider Model Rules of Professional Conduct 8.3 and 1.13), but we need to stay focused on the human side of the problem as we continue to draft and amend rules and regulations to govern lawyers, business executives and others. (This side of the corporate risk management problem was thoughtfully raised in a comment to one of my prior posts. See here.) It is a difficult issue, but one worth tackling.

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2 Responses

  1. Tigran Eldred says:

    Thanks for this post – I agree that students tend to be overly optimistic about their ability to avoid ethical traps, which to my mind reinforces the importance of addressing the behavioral component of ethical decision-making in PR courses. I’m starting to think about the best readings for students to discuss these important issues. Any thoughts?

  2. Josh Camson says:

    I agree completely. As a 3L student, I have found that many of my peers fall into this mental trap. Even during the beginning weeks of our Ethics class, most of the cases were so black and white that it only reinforced this mentality. However, I thought the best way to shed this mentality was reading cases that take place in that gray area. That is what makes students start thinking “Wow, I would have done the same thing…”