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An all-too-familiar refrain is heard at gatherings of law professors who teach legal ethics. We keep telling each other that we are working harder than ever before at teaching our subject, yet fewer and fewer students seem to be “getting it.” How can this be? We try sohard to distinguish our legal ethics classes: we use stories; we show movie clips; we organize role-playing exercises; and we try numerous other ways to get students to look beyond the black-letter rules and instead focus their attention on the underlying moral or philosophical principles. So why isn’t Johnnie (“Johnnie,” of course, may be a male or a female student) learning ethics? Johnnie isn’t learning ethics because Johnnie is confused. At many law schools the legal ethics course is not taught like other law courses; it does not look or “feel” like the other courses. The legal ethics course is somehow “different.” The differences may be obvious, such as pass-fail grading rather than the letter grades used in other required courses. Some law schools still offer professional responsibility as only a two-credit course — a ridiculously compressed time period in which to cover so much. But there is another, more subtle difference that is even more damaging to our goal of trying to familiarize students with the basic tenets of legal ethics: too many professors spend too much time talking about morality or philosophy, and too little time teaching the legal standards that govern our conduct as lawyers. Some legal ethics professors argue that these differences are positive. I disagree, believing instead that we digress from our mission and devalue our message when we decline to present professional ethics as the substantive legal doctrine that it has become. The rules of professional conduct apply to everylawyer, regardless of his or her practice area. Relatively few lawyers practice primarily in, for instance, the tax area. The same is true for creditors’ rights, or securities law. All of these courses, however, are geared toward teaching students the relevant law. (Sometimes these courses are even required.) Yet we rarely teach legal ethics, which apply universally to all lawyers, as the governing legal standards — the law — that they are. Why aren’t our classes designed to sharply focus on the rules of conduct that govern every aspect of our professional lives? Although the legal ethics rules originally were grounded in concepts of moral or socially desirable behavior, they have evolved far beyond their morality-based beginnings. Of course, many legal ethics rules are consistent with the moral beliefs held by most people — e.g., a lawyer cannot knowingly assist a client in criminal or fraudulent conduct — ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2(d); ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility DR 7-102(A)(7). Other rules, however, actually are contrary to what many people believe would be the morally correct position (e.g., the ethical duty of confidentiality forbids a lawyer from revealing that a client committed a heinous crime — ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6; ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility DR 4-101). Still other legal ethics rules have no apparent relationship to morality (e.g., the color or location of the “advertising” disclosure required on a direct mail advertising letter); see, e.g., Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 4-7.4(b)(2)(B). Legal ethics certainly is not the only area of law with moral or philosophical overtones and underpinnings. Tort law calls upon the responsible party to bear the cost of his or her conduct, and it codifies certain social policies that are grounded in caring and protectionism (e.g., the attractive nuisance doctrine). Contract law requires the promise-breaker to pay for the damages caused. Employment discrimination law protects identified groups of people from unfair treatment. In each of those classes, however, we focus our energies on teaching the law. While relevant background principles might be mentioned, the lawtakes center stage. Law students expect to see their law courses taught this way. When we teach professional responsibility using noticeably different or unusual methods, we send the message that legal ethics — which today might more properly be called the law of lawyering — is somehow less worthy of serious study. (The “law of lawyering” is a broad term encompassing all the relevant authorities that govern lawyers’ conduct. It includes, for example, the disciplinary rules, the law of lawyer disqualification, law concerning fiduciary duties and conflicts of interest, and court rules covering lawyer behavior.) If we want law students to accord legal ethics courses the same respect that they do their other courses, we need to make ethics “look like” the other subjects. Finally, there is another, very practical reason why we need to focus on teaching the ethical standards. Lawyers are charged with knowing and complying with the rules of professional conduct. When a lawyer is charged with violating these rules, no court or state bar accepts an excuse along the lines of “I did what I thought was right” or “I wanted to achieve a personally or socially desirable result.” The lawyer is held responsible for failing to conform his or her conduct to the rules. Society demands no less. Like it or not, in today’s environment ethics islaw. It is time to teach “ethics as law.” Timothy P. Chinaris, formerly Ethics Director of The Florida Bar, teaches legal ethics and directs the law library at Appalachian School of Law in Virginia; the school’s Web site is www.asl.edu/.

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