Category: Legal Ethics


Technology Musings

Recently the New York Times carried a front page story about an eighth grade girl who foolishly took a nude picture of herself with her cell phone and sent it to a fickle boy – sexting. The couple broke up but her picture circulated among her schools mates with a text message “Ho Alert” added by a frenemy.  In less than 24 hours, “hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it. In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost.”  The three students who set off the “viral outbreak” were charged with disseminating child pornography, a Class C felony.

The story struck a nerve, not only with the affected community, but with the Times’ readers as well.  Stories about the misuse and dangers of technology provide us with opportunities to educate our students, and us. In a Washington State sexting incident, for example, the teen charged had to prepared a public service statement warning other teens about sexting to avoid harsher criminal penalties.  But the teen’s nude photo is still floating around.  Information has permanence on the internet.

Few of us appreciate how readily obtainable our personal information is on the internet.   Read More


Volunteering in a Recession

I heard an interview today with a representative of a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers with organizations in need—a sort of match-maker in the volunteer context. Interestingly, the representative reported an increase in the number of available volunteers during the recession (see also here and here). She attributed this trend to two things: people who had lost their jobs wanting to keep up their skills while searching for new employment and people generally wanting to help others in need.

The report piqued my interest regarding whether the recession was having a similar, positive effect on the provision of pro bono legal services. I suspected that more people were in greater need of legal assistance as a result of the recession, which in fact turns out to be the case (see here and here). I did not know, however, whether lawyers were meeting this increased demand. I like to think we are, but the profession’s record on this point is not necessarily encouraging (see, e.g., here).

The results appear mixed. Some reports suggest that the level of pro bono activity has remained the same or increased slightly in the past few years (but see here). (For interesting perspectives on the recession and the legal profession, including pro bono legal services, see here and here.) Nevertheless, even these increased activity levels fall woefully short of the reported need. So, given high lawyer unemployment rates and the desire to better train new lawyers, why does this gap exist?

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Teaching Professionalism

One of my favorite courses to teach is Legal Profession (i.e., ethics and professionalism) because it truly is an “ah-ha” moment for many law students. I tend to believe that not many students consider the “profession” part of the “legal profession” prior to attending law school. Rather, I suspect they view law school as a means to an end—landing a lucrative job (or at least that was the case in days gone by; see here,  here and here). They probably give little thought to the fact that they are preparing to join a “profession.”

I know that many even inside the legal profession question whether it remains a profession or is now just a business and all about the bottom line. (For interesting discussions of this debate, see here, here, here and here). I am very traditional in this respect, and I hold dear the notion that the law is an esteemed profession. (I particularly like Roscoe Pound’s definition of the legal profession as “a group…pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service—no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood.”) And I am proud to be a member of that profession.

For this reason, I stress the nature of the profession and what it means to be a professional in the early days of Legal Profession. I often quote the Preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to emphasize that a lawyer does more than serve clients. “A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” I then use a series of hypothetical problems to work through what that triad of responsibilities means for lawyers. You can actually see the light bulb go off for some students.

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Virtual Perils of Cyber Hate and the Need for a Conception of Digital Citizenship

Although intermediaries’ services can facilitate and reinforce a citizenry’s activities, they pose dangers that work to undermine them.  Consider the anonymous and pseudonymous nature of online discourse.  Intermediaries permit individuals to create online identities unconnected to their legal identities.  Freed from a sense of accountability for their online activities, citizens might engage in productive discourse in ways that they might not if directly correlated with their offline identities.  Yet the sense of anonymity breeds destructive behavior as well.  Social science research suggests that people behave aggressively when they believe that they cannot be observed and caught.  Destructive online behavior spills offline, working a fundamental impairment of citizenship.

For instance, digital expressions of hatred helped inspire the 1999 shooting of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews in suburban Chicago by Benjamin Smith, a member of the white supremacist group World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) that promotes racial holy war.  Just months before the shootings, Smith told documentary filmmaker Beverly Peterson that: “It wasn’t really ‘til I got on the Internet, read some literature of these groups that . . . it really all came together.”  More recently, the Facebook group Kick a Ginger Day urged members to get their “steel toes ready” for a day of attacking individuals with red hair. The site achieved its stated goal: students punched and kicked children with red hair and dozens of Facebook members claimed credit for attacks.

Cyber hate can produce so much psychological damage as to undermine individuals’ ability to engage in public discourse.  For instance, posters on a white supremacist website targeted Bonnie Jouhari, a civil rights advocate and mother of a biracial girl.  They revealed Ms. Jouhari’s home address and her child’s picture.  The site showed a picture of Ms. Jouhari’s workplace exploding in flames next to the threat that “race traitors” are “hung from the neck from the nearest tree or lamp post.”  Posters included bomb-making instructions and a picture of a hooded Klansman holding a noose.  Aside from moving four times, Ms. Jouhari and her daughter have withdrawn completely from public life; neither has a driver’s license, a voter registration card or a bank account because they don’t want to create a public record of their whereabouts.

Search engines also ensure the persistence and production of cyber hate that undermines citizens’ capability to engage in offline and online civic engagement.  Because search engines reproduce information cached online, people cannot depend upon time’s passage to alleviate the damage that online postings cause.  Unlike leaflets or signs affixed to trees that would decay or disappear not long after their publication, now search engines index all of the content hosted by social media intermediaries, producing it instantaneously. Read More


Users of Online Intermediaries as Citizens

Most naturally, social media providers and search engines see their users as consumers.  As commercial enterprises, they aim to reap profits, which users help secure with advertising and information revenue.  Yet they should also view their users as citizens.  Because intermediaries are designed to enable public discourse, they facilitate the formation of a citizenry.

Citizenship is not simply a matter of legal status enjoyed by members of a body politic, though it serves that crucial role.  It refers to one’s engagement in public life as well.  Public participation is often viewed as essential for members of a democracy to form a citizenry.  As John Dewey wrote, citizenship extends beyond the legal dimension to include “all of the relationships . . . involved in membership in a community.”  For John Stuart Mill, citizens are individuals who develop their faculties through active engagement in public life.  In this sense, citizenship “provides what other roles cannot, namely an integrative experience which brings together the multiple role activities of the contemporary person and demands that the separate roles be surveyed from a more general point of view.”

Online intermediaries provide essential tools for citizenship.  Individuals rooted in our national polity connect, debate, and pursue common interests on intermediaries’ platforms.  Seeing users as citizens is important for intermediaries interested in understanding what is at stake when they host and index cyber hate.  This leads to the question of how intermediaries impact citizenry in the Information Age, to which I will turn in my next post.


Mandatory Pro Bono Down In Ole Miss

Lawyering on the Chain Gang

The Mississippi Supreme Court is considering whether to require the state’s lawyers to either provide “at least 20 hours of free service to the poor each year” or buy their way out of the requirement by donating “$200 to $500” a year in fees.  The arguments for an against mandatory pro bono – whether in law schools or in practice – are familiar.  Lawyers in the Mississippi make them pretty well:

Don Lacy of,_Mississippi. . .  lambastes the proposal as “an unprecedented and unjustifiable unilateral extension of the authority of the court.”

“Other than perhaps the priesthood, I am unaware of any profession which requires its members, as a condition of their right to practice their craft, to contribute a portion of their income to charity,” Lacy said in a letter to the court.

There are supporters, however, and Will Bardwell, a Jackson lawyer in private practice for a little more than a year, is among them.

“I understand the argument, doubtlessly voiced by many of my colleagues, that no one should be required to provide what is, in essence, community service,” Bardwell said. “Fundamentally, I agree. But the fact is that attorneys are different. That distinction exists as both an honor, and sometimes, a burden.

For what it is worth, I’m with Lacy.  If the State thinks that there is a need for more and cheaper legal work for the poor, it should loosen restrictions on entry into the profession.  This proposal, which increases barriers to entry and to practice, may make the problem worse.

(But see SHG)


Bartering Legal Services for Sex

Sometimes I think that lawyers unfairly get a bad rap. Most lawyers work hard, comply with all of the ethical rules, and respect their clients. However, there are a few that repeatedly violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, hurting their clients and threatening the public’s trust in the legal profession. Unfortunately, they continue to practice law.

Imagine an attorney who has been admonished, reprimanded, and censured four times in a 6-year period for failing to communicate with clients and for recordkeeping violations, and who is later held ineligible to practice law for 15 months for failure to pay into the state’s Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection among other things.  Imagine that this attorney (who continues to practice law during this period of ineligibility) offers discounted fees to three female bankruptcy clients and to the daughter of another client in exchange for sexual favors. (He told the daughter of a bankruptcy client who could not afford his fee that he would forgive her father’s debt if she would meet him “in a hotel room for three hours.”)  You can read the rest of the stipulated facts here.

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Could You Cheat On an Open-Book Issue Spotter?

Claims of cheating by college students are increasingly common.  Law schools are not immune to the problem, though it is rarely talked about.  That’s true even though the likelihood of being caught is (probably) higher than in college (because one professor, not multiple RAs, do the grading) and the consequences are more dire (because cheaters, even if not expelled, should be reported to the Bar’s character and fitness board).  For exams where the “game” depends on quickly uncovering information — multiple choice exams, especially when questions are copied from previous years, or closed book essays — it is my sense that cheating is on the rise.  Similarly, plagiarism on long-form writing is cheaper than it used to be, and thus more common.  As compared to colleges, law schools are ill-equipped to deal with these sets of problems, as they lack a tradition of centralized pedagogical coordination, and thus the resources and know-how that might enable technological solutions of cheating.

That all said, I’ve always comforted myself that if you give an issue-spotting exam that is open book, even immoral maximizing students won’t cheat.  By making exams open-book, you prevent the easiest form of cheating – a student getting informational advantages over others by looking up cases or treatises.  All that is left is discussion between test takers, which is prohibited by the honor code and which is a form of cheating.  I tend to think that such coordination is quite rare.  Though two students working together might “spot” more issues than either alone, it’s just as possible that group think will revert them to the mean answer – the easiest to see issues.  Moreover, “A” answers are distinguished (mostly) not by spotting issues but by discussing them.  Two students together would run a terrible risk if their discussions looked alike to the grader.  Thus, open-book monster issue spotters are structurally difficult to game, and the best defense against cheaters – at least until we replace our current grading system with a computer.


The Posthumous Case for Impeaching Abe Fortas

Recall 1968 and the failed confirmation of Abe Fortas to be Chief Justice of the United States. President Lyndon Johnson had announced he was not seeking reelection; Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon menaced in the wings. Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his resignation—contingent upon the Senate’s confirmation of his successor—and thereby auspiciously created one last vacancy for LBJ to fill. LBJ nominated Associate Justice Abe Fortas as the inside candidate. Homer Thornberry was nominated to fill Fortas’s to-be vacated seat.

Republican Senators (encouraged quietly by candidate Nixon) together with the Dixiecrats blocked the Fortas nomination in hopes that Nixon would fill the seat with a nominee of his choice. As grounds for opposing confirmation, they cited, among other grounds, the Justice’s unusually close relationship to LBJ—an open secret in official Washington.

Under oath, Fortas decided to put the allegations to rest with this testimony: “Let me say in the first place—and make this absolutely clear—that since I have been a Justice, the President of the United States has never, directly or indirectly, approximately or remotely, talked to me about anything before the Court or that might come before the Court. I want to make that absolutely clear.”

Except, that really wasn’t the truth—far from it.

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Book Review: Daniel Markovits, A Modern Legal Ethics

A Modern Legal Ethics, by Daniel Markovits.  Princeton University Press: New York 2008.  Pp. 361.  $29.95

Daniel Markovits’s A Modern Legal Ethics could change the way we think about legal ethics, although not necessarily far enough or in only the right directions.

The main argument is elegant and provocative.  Markovits contends that a central issue in legal ethics should be the “problem of integrity.”  Lawyers must be able to integrate their professional commitments into their moral lives.  This is the most important insight of the book.  Other commentators have noted the problem of integrity, but Markovits offers the most sustained and nuanced discussion.  His argument opens up new avenues for thinking about the rules governing lawyers.

On Markovits’s telling, the lawyer’s integrity is directly challenged by her professional obligations.  Good lawyering requires what, on ordinary morality, would be considered lying and cheating.  These “lawyerly vices” are endemic to the adversarial system, so they can’t be cured by tailoring the rules governing lawyers.  Neither is avoiding these vices an option, given their incompatibility with integrity.

For Markovits, there are better and worse ways to solve this problem.  Most theories of legal ethics utilize what he calls (after David Luban) the “adversarial system excuse,” or the consequentialist view that the lawyerly vices are justified as part of a legal system that is just overall.  Here, if the overall practice is justified, then the integrity issues fall away.  Impersonal approaches can only accidentally or incidentally resolve integrity problems.

Interpersonal theories of legal ethics (which he calls “Kantian” approaches) don’t fare any better.  On these approaches, principles of legal ethics are acceptable only if they fulfill specified criteria (e.g., that they could be reasonably consented to, that they could not be reasonably rejected, etc.).  Yet, Markovits argues, concentrating on fulfilling such criteria raises the same problem as with impersonal approaches: any resolution to the problem of integrity is a byproduct, rather than an important end in itself.

Markovits thinks we must take the “lawyer’s point of view” in order to solve the problem of integrity in the right way, which requires a “first-personal” approach to morality.  Markovits calls his version “role-based redescription.”  If there were a distinctive, morally worthy role for lawyering, then the lawyer could preserve her integrity by redescribing her professional obligations to lie and cheat as requirements of fulfilling this role.

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