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Truth or Myth: Law Students Are Ethically Formed When They Enter School

Because IQ is static and formed early in life, some also believe that one's ethical traits and values are the same.  That is a myth.  Lawrence Kohlberg and other psychologists have shown that moral values continue to develop well into adulthood.  Indeed, Dan Goleman's book, Emotional Intelligence, observed that the myriad forms of emotional intelligence also develop into adulthood.  A lawyer does not solely need to know legal doctrines, the rules of evidence, and effective persuasive skills to be a successful lawyer.  She also needs a sound philosophy of ethical values. A lot of the lawyers I know who have fallen into addiction lack a sense of self. They have unrealistic expectations of the legal profession and of themselves. What do I mean by this statement?   They are looking to the legal profession to solve their problems, both professional and personal, and to provide them with inward satisfaction and validation. By contrast, the lawyers who enjoy their job and find true fulfillment in their work, see the legal system as less than perfect, but still a means of solving disputes. They enjoy it because the decisions they make come from their predetermined choice to stick to their beliefs. By having this perspective, they are not so easily tempted to compromise their standards to achieve an ill-gained victory. They do their best but do not sacrifice their sense of self—i.e., their values—for cases.  At the end of the day, these lawyers can rest peacefully with the decisions they have made.


As the Carnegie's Educating Lawyers states:

In law school, students learn from both what is said and what is left unsaid. There is a message in what the faculty addresses and what it does not. When faculty routinely ignore - or even explicitly rule out of bonds - the ethical-social issues embedded in the cases under discussion, whether they mean to or not, they are teaching students that ethical-social issues are not important to the way one ought to think about legal practice. This message shapes students' habits of mind, with important long-term effects on how they approach their work...

(Page 140).

To simplify, law schools—even when they think they are not dealing with it—are involved in the ethical formation of their students. The "hands-off" value approach shapes students every bit as much as a program whose purpose is to help cultivate and develop the ethical formation of their students. The idea that we are implanting values by addressing them "head-on" is greatly mistaken.  What we, as professors, are doing is encouraging students to think and develop their own system. By excluding discussion of ethical values, and failing to recognize their importance in the student's life, a professor deprives students some of the most important lessons they should learn before practice.  It is the same faulty idea that refusing to make a choice is actually no choice. There is a choice.   By taking a “hands off” approach, we devalue the significance of one’s ethical values and influence students to ignore their professional identities.  Alternatively, by dealing with these issues intentionally, we help students to develop their ethical identity and to enter the profession with a sense of self.

In my personal experience and in observing others, the most important lessons I have learned are (1) the need to have a realistic perspective on the legal system, and (2) a sense of the values by which one will be guided.

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