Reason Not to Go to Law School #6


There are three different systems of ethics in the world:

Six year old ethics: Little kids have very good instincts about what is fair and what is not. Sometimes they just need a little more information about what effects different choices will have, but they’re generally good gauges of what’s right and what’s wrong.

“Ethics:” Then there’s ethics as in “ethics.” This is the manipulation of rules to come up with the most convoluted way to rationalize their actions. If you explain it to a six year old and they give you a cross look, it’s probably not ethics, it’s “ethics.”

Lawyer ethics: Some people will confuse this with “ethics” in that it’s entirely convoluted, but instead of trying to find some weird theory to justify their actions, lawyers just create needlessly complex, stupid ethical rules. I assume law students start school with the normal six year old ethical sense most of us share. But, somewhere along the line their heads get full of weird legal rules and they lose sight of basic ethical principles. While sometimes they are trying to cheat and steal and relying on “ethics,” most of the time they’re just so far removed from basic humanity that they couldn’t find a coherent ethical principle with two hands and Hammurabi.

Case in point: David Lat (of fame) went to a hotel, ate a packet of Oreos from the hotel mini bar. He then replaced the packet with an identical one bought from a local store to avoid the crazy hotel charge. He submitted this scenario to Randy Cohen’s New York Times column The Ethicist, who promptly told him he was in the wrong.

Here’s what one commenter said, as reported on Above the Law:

“In a way, it’s somewhat analogous to the crime of theft (as tested on bar exams): once you take something that doesn’t belong to you with the intent of permanently depriving the owner of possession, the crime is complete. You can later change your mind and return it, but the crime remains.”

While this is a fair representation of the fictitious (yet representative) multi-state crime of theft as test on the bar exam, it’s also a fair representation of what’s wrong with law student (and lawyer) ethics. The analogy is simply irrelevant. Here’s the entire relevant inquiry regarding Lat’s dilemma:

Q: Was anyone, in the least bit, harmed by your action?

A: No.


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