Monday, July 23, 2007

Rotunda reflects on a personal history of Teaching Professional Responsibility and Ethics

Ronald D. Rotunda, George Mason, has posted an essay, Teaching Professional Responsibility and Ethics, which is appearing in the St. Louis University Law Journal. Here's the abstract:
This article discusses the development of teaching legal ethics in light of the changes in the ethics rules over the years. The thesis is that many ethics rules reflect the needs of a cartel (the legal profession) to protect itself, rather than the need to protect the clients of lawyers. The author uses stories and examples to illustrate this thesis.
Professor Rotunda sets legal ethics in a historical context, but the principal history for this article is personal, and so it provides reflections on ethics by this senior scholar from before his career began. He opens with this evocative story:
My first recollection of wanting to become a lawyer was in grade school, when the teacher told each of us to write a paper on what we wanted to be. I was probably in eighth grade. I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. I do not know why I made that choice. I did not know any lawyers. My parents never had the opportunity to attend college; my mother never even attended high school. My father emphasized education, but it was up to me to decide on a career.

In order to collect information on lawyers for my grade school paper, I wrote the state bar in Illinois, where I lived. The bar sent me its code of professional responsibility. I remember one thing: that one of the rules of professional responsibility stated that it was unethical to charge less than a certain amount of money per hour. I do not remember the exact amount, for it was many years ago. Let us say it was fifty dollars per hour. I do remember that, whatever the hourly amount was, it was more than what my father earned in a good day.

Think about that. It would be unethical for a lawyer to charge less per hour than my father earned in a full day. He is retired now, but at the time, he was a skilled, self-employed, blue collar worker (a sign painter). He often worked ten hours a day. Yet, it would be unethical for a lawyer to charge less per hour than he would earn in a good day.

What struck me at the time was that the legal profession said it was unethical to charge too little.
More stories are here.