Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Lawyers & Ethics
A Simple Jew asks:
Fundamentally, the practice of law deals with ruling on what is right and wrong. I once asked a friend who was a lawyer whether he had to take classes in ethics in law school. My friend responded that aside from some brief instruction on the ethics of not to over-bill clients he was not taught anything on this subject.
Don't you find it highly ironic that a lawyer, a person who will determine right or wrong, has no more training in ethics than the common man?
Dixie Yid answers:
Good questions. Here are a couple of thoughts:
One is regarding the idea that an American attorney's practice deals with ruling on what's right and wrong; I'm not sure many attorney's view their role that way. That might be a better description of a Rav's job! An attorney would probably say that a better description of his job is to help his clients understand what is legal and what is illegal.
Another thought is that, unlike your friend's law school, my law school does require each student to take a 1 semester ethics course (taught by a frum professor!), not merely a few hours on how not to overbill. (And overbilling is just the tip of the iceberg about what goes on with billing.) They get into other basic issues like what to do if, after you've made certain representations to the court, you find out from the client that they weren't true. What are your obligations?
In general, however, American lawyers don't really see themselves as moral guides for their clients. So what, if anything, stops an attorney from representing clients who deserve to lose, whether it be in criminal or civil issues? One thing attorneys must do is sign every motion they make to the court, stating that the motion they are submitting is legitimate, and not frivolous. I think the test most people who want to be honest use is: Is the argument that I am about to make at least somewhat legally cognizable? If not, I think good attorneys would not make the argument.
I guess the way I would answer you is that you should not look to your attorney for moral guidance about what's right and wrong, but rather about what is legal and what is not legal.
Although in the formation and argumentation about law, there is a place for morals. They serve as the basis for a lot of the law, even today in our secular society. When a judge is deciding on how to rule in a case, he looks to what social policy goal is best served by whichever rule he picks.
An example: A contract is only binding if both sides give something in exchange for the other party's promise. That something is called "consideration." And if that consideration is something that is considered clearly morally wrong (or criminal), then the contract is void. For instance, if A takes out a contract on B's life by hiring hit-man C, by giving C a $10,000 down-payment before carrying out the job, that contract is unenforceable by secular law. If C backs out because he becomes a baal teshuva, and A sues him to either complete his contractual obligations (!) or return the deposit, American law says that he doesn't have to because the contract is void as a matter of public policy. It's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that morality is the basis for much American law.
In the end though, I think that despite the major role public policy and morality play in the formation of the law, the modern attorney's role isn't to decide what's right and wrong, but it is to advise his clients about their legal rights and obligations.
As a side point, it is fascinating to study the similarities and differences of how halacha treats various types of situations and how American law does. But that's a topic for another day!