This afternoon will be the first meeting of my law and ethics class. It's a requirement: all law students need to take a course that satisfies the professional responsibility mandate of the ABA.
It's fairly striking how meticulous the law school has been in driving home ethical requirements generally. I've never been in an environment before where ethical duties were so consciously addressed. For instance, in one of my previous classes there was a system for signing up to get called upon. If you were prepared for class, you would circle your name. If you had 15 circles through the semester, you'd get an automatic bump up in your grade. But the professor was very clear - if you circled your name you had an ethical responsibility to be prepared if called upon. In another course the professor assigned students a date to be on call. He spoke gravely about how it would be a breach of ethics to not be present that day.
It's not that I see anything unreasonable with these requirements. Not being available or prepared would result in taking an unjust advantage. What struck me was the specific language used to make clear such behavior would be forbidden, and the apparently perceived need to clearly address it at all. It's almost like we aren't trusted, and the only way we might recognize our ethical responsibilities is if they were spelled out so clearly in those terms.
Without having taken the course yet I see ethical awareness as taking two forms: One, to be able to choose between a good option or bad the good one, even if it means subordinating self-interest if the other option would have caused some sort of harm or unfairness. I get the impression that law students are not regarded as necessarily capable of making the proper choice in such situations, perhaps because they are more likely to be blinded by the temptations or pressures of their circumstance.
I'm not sure better judgment can really be taught: I think it's a matter of personal philosophy if you are inclined to act in your self interest even if it might be to the detriment of others or simply unfair. Personally I prefer not to - I see causing unfairness as being too high a cost that my own personal gain wouldn't be worth. But for other people maybe it's necessary to propose a different cost, like disbarment or some other punitive sanction, in order to provide the incentive to make better choices.
The other form of ethical awareness is the ability to identify a choice as being either ethical or not in the first place. This is the area where I think the education can be most helpful, as we will soon find ourselves in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar duties and responsibilities and power. Some guidance in navigating the gray areas can be very helpful, though ultimately it will still be up to us as individual people to make the correct choices once identified.
Edit: On my flight back from California earlier this week I sat next to a professor at another law school who teaches this material. I mentioned I was about to take the class over at BU and related to her my current impressions. I decided to document them here before I became immersed in the class to help track how my perception will change as part of my Great Change. Having now sat through the first class meeting since I wrote the above, I'm certain my views and attitudes will change as a result of the education, but I will reserve further comment until later in the process. Except to say that David E. Kelley may have redeemed himself: The Practice makes an excellent learning tool for this kind of thing...