Lawyers in Practice: Ethical Decision Making in Context, edited by Leslie C. Levin & Lynn Mather. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2012. pp. 370. $39.00
What is the best way to study the ethical world of lawyers? On a “top-down” approach, this study proceeds in two steps: first, we start with the rules of legal ethics (or, perhaps, the moral, legal or political principles that underlie those rules); second, we apply these rules and principles to particular cases that lawyers confront.
The infirmities of the top-down approach are a recurring theme of the essays collected in Lawyers in Practice. Most of the authors in this collection either champion or practice an alternative method, one that is inductive, or “bottom-up.” On this method, when studying the ethical world of lawyers, we should first examine how real-world lawyers confront real-life ethical challenges. In analyzing these responses, we should consider a variety of factors other than the rules or principles of legal ethics that drive lawyers to act in the ways that they do.
Thus, we can restate our opening question more precisely. When studying legal ethics, should we be top-downers, bottom-uppers, or both? Which is the more fundamental task: justifying the rules of legal ethics or explaining how lawyers behave when confronted with ethical challenges? Lawyers in Practice makes these broader questions salient. In this review, I want to offer a chastened case for a top-down approach, while recognizing the important (but ultimately complementary) role that bottom-up methods can play in studying the ethical world of lawyers.
Before exploring this broader topic, here are some vitals on the book. Lawyers in Practice is a collection of essays that were originally presented at a conference at the University of Buffalo Law School. Levin and Mather provide an introductory essay and short epilogue summarizing some main themes, and essays by David Wilkins and Elizabeth Chambliss explore some methodological issues for the sociolegal study of lawyers’ ethics.