Josiah J. Puder is Vice President and General Counsel of Melt, Inc., a franchisor of casual restaurants located in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the crisis that hit Wall Street this September makes clear, ethics in law and business must be reexamined and its virtues “re-extolled.” Whether it be accountants who hid losses, the lawyers who looked the other way, or the executives that made millions while the savings of many Americans were washed away overnight, it is undeniable that the United States not only faces a financial crisis but an ethical one as well.
As young lawyers, you are in a unique position to be able to start your career by either subscribing to the “win at all costs” mentality that so prevails in our society today or by adhering to the highest ethical standards now and throughout your career, without ceding any “edge.”
So just how are young lawyers doing when it comes to ethics? To find out, I interviewed partners in law firms across the country to take the temperature of ethics among young lawyers today.
Q: What are some of the most common ethical problems/issues you see young lawyers dealing with today? Do law firms do a good job ensuring that young lawyers understand their ethical duties to clients, their firm, and the profession?
A: Most of the respondents (all partner-level lawyers) answered that a lack of training on ethical issues is a problem and admitted that law firms do not do a good job of ensuring that young lawyers receive proper ethics training on the job. With busy schedules, partners often rely upon a young lawyer’s intuition instead of any specific internal training. Several lawyers admitted that while law firms pay lip service to ethics, their focus is on the bottom line.
Your to-do list: If you have specific ethical issues, approach the appropriate partner at your firm about them. (If you are a solo practitioner or are employed in-house, consult with a colleague you respect and who has a solid ethical reputation.) Ask your law firm for its ethics guide, make sure you have a copy of your state and local ethics rules handy when questions come up, and ask your firm if they have any internal ethics training. If they do not, ask them if you can attend an ethics CLE or consider making a manual for the firm. Some firms may laugh or indicate that your billables were mighty low this month, but some firms may appreciate the proactive approach. You may find a niche as the “go-to” person for ethical questions and conflicts. You can also make use of your local bar hotline or the ABA’s ETHICSearch, a comprehensive service available at www.abanet.org/cpr/ethicssearch/home.html.
Q: Are ethical issues among younger lawyers today any different from those faced by young lawyers in the past?
A: Most of the respondents said no. James Mulcahy, a principal and partner in a boutique Irvine, California, law firm and a former partner at a large firm in Chicago, observed that “while ethical issues presented to young lawyers have not dramatically changed, the issues have become more complex due to larger firms, less individual oversight, and the requisite conflict issues involved in representation.” Many respondents remarked that the ever-greater pressure on associates to produce billable hours has also created an ethics issue. How can an associate adhere to his or her own sense of ethics when they are being told to essentially bill a client for everything, including sometimes double-billing? Andrew Simons, a partner in a Santa Barbara business law firm, sees the mobility of opportunity to be a major difference between today’s young lawyers and those of the past. “Things are moving faster today. There are more opportunities to make it big faster, and as a result, there are ethical issues that present to young lawyers that were not as much of an issue in the past,” says Simons.
Your to-do list : Talk to senior lawyers about some of the questions or issues that you anticipate may be problematic (you will be surprised at the good stories they will relate to you). Understand that in an increasingly competitive world, it becomes even more difficult to balance your economic energy with your ethical conscience. Usually, your conscience will speak to you. Your “gut feeling” is often the right feeling.
This small survey reflects the trend of attorney ethics not receiving the focus it should. The good news is that as young lawyers, the ball is in your court to turn the tide and start making ethics as important as the paycheck you collect. Phil Chapman, a 1961 Harvard Law School graduate currently of counsel for a prominent New Jersey law firm, states that it simply is not practical to take the easy road around ethical responsibilities: “Prudence and ethics merge. Ethical and practical considerations often dictate the same course of action, which is best for your firm and its client.”
While it is nice that you may have recently won a summary judgment motion in district court, your ethical reputation will outlast and carry significantly more import over time than your last “win.” Focus your attention on your ethical temperature and ask “how am I doing?”