The legal profession is closely tied to notions of ethics and professionalism. Lawyers are supposed to be ethical, trustworthy representatives of clients, helping them to resolve conflicts and understand the law. These responsibilities are laid out in the Rules of Professional Conduct, a code adopted by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1983 that has been adopted by virtually every state jurisdiction in the United States. Violations of the code can lead to consequences including the revocation of a lawyer’s license to practice.
Given how established, regulated, and important notions of legal ethics are to the profession, several legal scholars have asked, “are law schools doing enough to prepare students for the professional and ethical obligations they will take on after passing their bar exam?” Law school codes of conduct are the primary focus of this question. What are current codes of conduct like? How should they change? What is the ideal code of conduct for a law school? In this post, we look into opinions on these questions and more.
Why Are Law School Codes Relevant?
Scandals involving the legal profession prompt inquiries into the ethics curriculums in law school. It is argued, however, that any large corporate scandal (of which there have been many in the last decade) should bring up ethics in the legal field and therefore ethics in law school as well, considering the number of lawyers involved in any large corporate scandal. Many question if violations of the ABA code of ethics on any scale can be prevented by having stricter and more realistic codes of conduct in law school.
Current Codes Of Conduct
Currently, law schools that claim to have an ABA inspired code of conduct often incorporate local jurisdiction codes regulating attorney practices. While this may seem like a good thing at first, the fact is that most of the provisions included in an attorney code are not applicable in a law school setting. For example, codes regulating attorney-client relationships are not relevant to law school.
Another common aspect of law school codes involves student-run trials to determine code violations. Students assume the roles of prosecutor, defense counsel, and judicial panelists and, for this reason, these trials are seen as educational. Some argue, however, that simply having student-run trials to determine code violations does not adequately encourage or emphasize the ethical responsibilities of law students to the degree the ABA code regulates ethics.
Why Should Law School Codes Be Changed?
It is generally agreed upon that any law school code of conduct should include regulations on academic misconduct, as well as other academic-focused stipulations (as opposed to stipulations that solely apply to professionals). However, many argue that law school codes of conduct should be reformed to become similar in form and content to the ABA code, and they should be enforced in a similar manner to the way the ABA code is enforced. This includes non-toleration clauses, which give students the responsibility for enforcing the code, and significant sanctions on violators.
One study in the Akron Law Review suggests that all law schools should develop a code of conduct completely separate and unique from the University code. Further, this code should resemble the ABA code of ethics in as many ways as possible, to best prepare students for the ethical obligations of the profession. The ABA has recommended such changes in the past, most notably in 1986 when they released a statement saying:
“Law schools should have – as many do – a code of ethics, including procedures for dealing with disciplinary infractions. Ideally, we believe honor codes should be adapted, in so far as practical, from the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the ABA Standards for Lawyer Discipline and Disability Proceedings … Law schools should thereby introduce students from the outset of their careers to what it means to be subject to professional standards and processes.”
The idea behind such recommendations, as explained by another study done by a law professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, is that, since law students are the first and most critical part of the legal profession, their code of conduct should reflect this. The study further argues that a rigorous code of conduct that is relevant to law students can instill the aspiration to be an ethical lawyer in a law student. This aspiration to be ethical is sometimes proven to be lacking in law students, given the unfortunately plentiful examples of academic dishonesty that plague even the highest-ranked law schools.
It is clear that stricter law school codes of conduct could potentially decrease the amount of ABA violations that occur in the legal profession. If law school students are held to high standards from day one of their legal careers, there may be a better chance that they will maintain those high ethical standards well into their professional career.
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