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What do you want in a guard dog? A beast to protect you and your loved ones and to keep your baseball cards from ever falling into a thief’s clutches: strength in his toothy jaws, loyalty, a nasty snarl, and maybe some obedience. Only we think of obedience last. The first thing that comes to mind is: “I want a purebred beast who will fight for me.” What do you want in a lawyer? A beast to protect you and your loved ones and to keep your baseball cards from ever falling into your wife’s clutches: strength in his verbal jaws, loyalty, a nasty snarl, and maybe ethics. We think of ethics in a lawyer even less than we do obedience in a guard dog. The first thing that comes to mind is: “I want a Yale-bred beast who will fight for me.” Obedience is great, but too much of it takes away from a dog’s killer instincts. A dog school won’t train a dog until he’s at least 6 months old; they don’t want to squelch his natural aggressiveness. Similarly, ethics is great, but too much of it takes away from a lawyer’s killer instincts. Worse, law schools don’t get to teach legal ethics until the law student is at least 250 months old; they are stuck with his natural aggressiveness. When I was a kid, we had an attack dog, Rasputin. I call Rasputin an attack dog because that’s what he did — he attacked. He wasn’t much of a guard dog. I mean, he had all the abilities of a guard dog. If I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t remember whether I had locked the door, I just went back to sleep. ["Snarl-grr."] After a few “incidents,” I made sure I locked the door no matter what — to protect the burglars from Rasputin. There’s more to being a guard dog than just attacking. If the beast does whatever he wants, all that training in the fine art of “Sic him, boy!” is lost. In fact, Rasputin’s unfettered aggression caused as many problems as he protected us from. As fondly as I remember the way his foot would thump when I dangled a bone, Rasputin was our failure. Likewise, there’s more to being a lawyer than just attacking. If the beast does whatever he wants, all that training in the fine art of “Sue him, boy!” is lost. Unethical lawyers are more dangerous than Rasputin because lawyers can cover their tracks; they frequently perform their tricks on clients and laypeople who lack legal training and understanding; and, most importantly, a dog’s stomach can get full. I never heard a lawyer pull in for the night, saying, “Gee, my wallet feels full. I’m positively stuffed with money.” As fondly as I remember the way my uncle’s foot would thump as he opened his bonus as a corporate lawyer in front of the pack, er, family, he, too, was our failure. Legal ethics is what separates Rasputin from Lassie and Eddie the Advocate from Shay the Shyster. Lawyers and dogs are trained to attack, to sic — to show off those instincts that got them where they are to begin with. Legal ethics, in the minds of those whom it seeks to inculcate, is designed to curb the very instincts and abilities that make law students good at what they do: Be attractive to Uber-Firms and a bone-winner — er, I mean, breadwinner. Like Rasputin, carnivorous lawyers don’t understand (or only intellectually understand) why they’re encouraged and rewarded for having a wild beast’s drive for power, yet, at the same time, are expected to curb their bite with a tame animal’s docility. There is a dual temporal challenge for legal ethics: Legal ethics — the class — lasts for only a semester, a unit of time that I assure you can whiz by before you can say, “Outline?” And, most law students don’t even hear the phrase “legal ethics” until they are already in law school. By that time, we are already interviewing; we can smell the power. Legal ethics? That’s oxymoronic: “That’s just some dumb class they teach us so they can appear as though they care about those dumb issues. Say, Shay, what kind of BMW are you gonna drive when we’re rich?” Most law students don’t carry the scoffing tone that I do regarding the class while they’re still in school: “Sure, I support legal ethics… yeah, and I’m against crime and, and pollution and oh, yeah, I call my mother every Sunday … ” That voiced support shrivels to rot when actually choosing between the pot of gold and that pesky, gnawing conscience. By the time 2Ls and 3Ls take legal ethics, they have directly tasted or at least smelled the kind of money and power that law has to offer. Legal ethics has a hard enough of a time garnering respect as it competes with the prize that the legal profession seduces with: the good life. When you’re living the good life, you don’t feel much need to be good. Legal ethics is a noble but seemingly futile attempt to change the way things are. No class will change human nature. Dogs want to bite; it’s in their blood. They can be stopped — if you get to them not long after birth. Lawyers want to lawyer; it’s in their blood. Law school lacks a comparable, pivotal, early window in which to etch its indelible mark and change the world. Besides coming into play so late in life, legal ethics is the most theoretical class that law schools offer. Law students don’t respect theory. That’s why we chose professional school instead of grad school. We’re tired of ideas. We don’t want to know what or how to think. We just want to know what to do. Theoretical emphasis makes law students think that legal ethics is a class of ideas, not realities �- yet legal ethics prepares for the realities that we are sure to face: “C’mon — sss — God’s not looking — sss — and neither is your client — sss — jussst one bite from my tasssty apple.” Law school’s advantage in all this is getting a crack at every lawyer before he or she actually is a lawyer. You can expose them to whatever propaganda you choose. Every lawyer is going to face ethical scenarios in time. They needn’t be exposed to temptation for the first time when that damn snake is tickling their wallets. Ssss. No lawyer need treat any ethical dilemma as “a matter of first impression.” Legal ethics gives the legal profession a chance to set that pivotal precedent per the desired values. Is it too late? Everyone has training in “real” legal ethics, or the lack thereof. The man on the street knows that real lawyers master the rules only so that they know how to get past them — rules that the best lawyers — rich and frightening “suits” — go to when they figure that seeming to abide by the law will be cheaper than breaking it. Or, when getting around the law is cheaper than actually following it, like swearing in front of the world that cigarettes are not addictive. This public perception of a pack of lawyers running the world stigmatizes legal ethics. Before we law students had our first drink, we figured out legal ethics: It’s not relevant; it’s for sissies; the only people who want to take the class are legally ethical to begin with. Lawyers’ will to succeed is large — large enough to cloud our vision, to obfuscate our responsibilities. Legal ethics is perceived as being counterproductive to everything that law students are trying to sink their teeth into. Don’t rain on my parade! Don’t steal my bone! Objection! Ruff-ruff! There was a famous Stanford University experiment on psychological attitudes towards crime. A professor left a car in the middle of the safe campus for a week. Nothing happened. He then smashed the windshield and left the car for another week. Every day, the car suffered more damage, at an accelerating rate. The worse the car looked, the less hesitant people were to damage it. Similarly, lawyers look at the world as a dinged car that leaks money and power every time you batter it. By the time Shay the Shyster even learned the car existed, it was scratched, dinged, banged, smashed, and devastated. Ethics? Car-banging for the good life is an age-old tradition. Like Tevya says in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Tradition! Tradition is everything!” We’re talking about a practical class trying to solve practical problems. This is the practical reality: Law is seen not as a noble profession but as one that surrenders gold for every bite you take. Dogs go wild with blood-lust. Lawyers go wild with gold-fever. The more illegal the bite, the greater the payoff. Some say that before legal ethics can teach values and criteria, it has to unteach these mass prejudicial perceptions. Yet these perceptions are true. Other, smarter people, say that it isn’t too late to make them untrue — if lawyers make that choice. My dog Rasputin eventually settled down. I know why. It wasn’t the threats or the yelling or the punishments or the rewards or growing up or growing old or my little brother praying: “Please, God, don’t let Daddy kill Rasputin like he always says he will.” All those years, we were trying to teach Rasputin to act a certain way, but we couldn’t force him to take the key step. In the end, Rasputin did on his own what you can’t teach a dog or a lawyer to do: He made a choice. Law students can be taught how to make a choice, but they can’t be made to decide whether to make that choice. Teaching them how to make the ethical choice may be the best possible undertaking for a legal ethics class, and is far better than simply teaching what the ethical thing to do is. Give a lawyer a fish, and he’s good for the day. Teach a lawyer to fish, and he’s got a patent for life. Legal ethics shouldn’t teach law students what to do. I don’t know that it ultimately tries to do so. Legal ethics should teach law students how to make choices. I don’t know that it can do so. You can’t teach a person to be an ethical lawyer. That is a choice they make themselves. Mitch Artman is a 1L at the University of California, Hastings. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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