Being an ethical lawyer


NOTE: The original article is courtesy of Honorable Patrick J. Schiltz, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota, “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” (1999) 52 Vanderbilt Law Review 871. I have edited and rephrased certain content to allow ease or enhance the ideas proposed. And I take full responsibility of any mistakes and errors expressed

The Big Firm attraction

“Want to know what a first year associate at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles makes? $ 88,000. How about a sixth year associate at Dewey Ballantine in New York? $ 166,500, plus a $ 26,500 bonus. Profits per partner at McDermott, Will & Emery in Chicago? $ 700,000. These are figures may seem attractive specially when these were hefty pay cheques by “Big Firms” from 11 years ago!
Reading about the incomes of your rivals will bring on either intense envy or smug Schadenfreude. Big firm culture also reflects the many ways in which lawyers who are winning the game broadcast their success.
A first year male associate will buy his suits off the rack at a department store; a couple years later, he will be at Brooks Brothers; a few years after that, a salesperson will come to his office, with tape measures and fabric swatches in hand.
Similar ostentatious progress will be demonstrated with regard to everything from watches to cell phones to running shoes to child care arrangements to private social clubs. When lawyers speak with envy or admiration about other lawyers, they do not mention a lawyer’s devotion to family or public service, or a lawyer’s innate sense of fairness, or even a lawyer’s skill at trying cases or closing deals, nearly as much as they mention a lawyer’s billable hours, or stable of clients, or annual income.
It is very difficult for a young lawyer immersed in this culture day after day to maintain the values she had as a law student. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, young lawyers change. They begin to admire things they did not admire before, be ashamed of things they were not ashamed of before, find it impossible to live without things they lived without before. Somewhere, somehow, a lawyer changes from a person who gets intense pleasure from being able to buy her first car stereo to a person enraged over a $ 400,000 bonus.

Becoming Unethical?

As the values of an attorney change, so, too, does her ability to practice law ethically. The process that I have described will obviously push a lawyer away from practicing law ethically in the broadest sense–that is, in the sense of leading a balanced life and meeting non-work-related responsibilities. When work becomes all-consuming, it consumes all. To succeed in today’s big firm, a lawyer must live without a single “compelling, time consuming, and deeply valued interest outside the practice of law.”

Unethical lawyers do not start out being unethical;

They start out just like you–as perfectly decent young men or women who have every intention of practicing law ethically. They do not become unethical overnight; they become unethical just as you will (if you become unethical)–a little bit at a time. And they do not become unethical by shredding incriminating documents or bribing jurors; they become unethical just as you are likely to–by cutting a corner here, by stretching the truth a bit there. Simply when the work consumes you and it becomes the very “essence” of your existence.

“Let’s first be clear on what I (author) mean by practicing law ethically. I mean three things.

1. You generally have to comply with the formal disciplinary rules… I don’t have anything against the formal rules. Often, they are all that stands between an unethical  lawyer and a vulnerable client. You should learn them and follow them.

But you should also understand that the formal rules represent nothing more than “the lowest common denominator of conduct that a highly self-interested group will tolerate”…

Complying with the rules is usually a neccessary, but never a sufficient, part of being an ethical lawyer

2. The second thing you must do to be an ethical lawyer is to act ethically in your work, even when you aren’t required to do so by any rule…Don’t get sucked into the game.   

Don’t let money become the most important thing in your life.

Don’t fall into the trap of measuring your worth as an attorney–or as a human being–by how much money you make.


When you are at that barbeque at the senior partner’s house, instead of wistfully telling yourself, “This is the life,” ask the senior partner some questions. (I’m speaking figuratively here; you probably don’t want to actually ask these questions aloud.)

  1. Ask him how often he sees the gigantic house in which he lives. If he’s honest, you will find out that he hasn’t seen his home during daylight for almost four weeks, and that the only reason he came home at a decent hour tonight is to host the barbeque.
  2. Or ask him how often he’s actually sat on that antique settee in that expensively decorated living room. You will find out that the room is only used for entertaining guests.
  3. Or ask him about his beautiful wife. You will find out that she is the third Mrs. Partner and that the lawyers for the first two Mrs. Partners are driving him crazy.
  4. Or ask him about those beautiful children whose photographs are everywhere. You will find out that they live with their mothers, not with him; that he never sees one of them because she hates his guts; and that he sees the other two only on holidays–that is, when he is not working on the holidays, which isn’t often.
  5. And then ask him when is the last time he read a good book.
  6. Or watched television.
  7. Or took a walk.
  8. Or sat on his porch.
  9. Or cooked a meal.
  10. Or went fishing.
  11. Or did volunteer work.
  12. Or went to church. Or did anything that was not in some way related to work. Get the picture?

3. This lead on to the third thing you must do to be an ethical lawyer is to live an ethical life…

But being admitted to the bar does not absolve you of your responsibilities outside of work – to your family, to your friends, to your community, and, if you’re a person of faith, to your God.

To practice law ethically, your must meet those responsibilities, which means that you must live a balanced life. If you become a workaholic lawyer, you will be unhealthy, probably unhappy, and, I would argue, unethical.

Now I recognize that we live in an age of moral relativism… Your reaction to my claim that an unbalanced life is an unethical life may very well be, “That’s just your opinion.” It is my opinion, but it is surely not just my opinion. I would be surprised if the belief system to which you subscribe – whether it be religiously or secularly based – regards a life dominated by the pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of all else as an ethical life, or an attorney who meets only his responsibilities to his clients and law partners as an ethical person.”

Also recommended readings Meet the Hollywood Lawyer

3 responses »

  1. This blog is very nice and informative. It is difficult task but your post and experience serve and teach me how to handle and make it more simple and manageable.Thanks for the advice. Today I am furtunate and I find a lot of nice posts.

  2. Pingback: A Watchmaker’s Son, Three Weddings and The Case Like No Other « Off brown yet Yellow

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