This essay presents a practical vision of the responsibilities of lawyers as both professionals and as citizens at the beginning of the 21st century. Specifically, we seek to define and give content to four ethical responsibilities that we believe are of signal importance to lawyers in their fundamental roles as expert technicians, wise counselors, and effective leaders: responsibilities to their clients and stakeholders; responsibilities to the legal system; responsibilities to their institutions; and responsibilities to society at large. Our fundamental point is that the ethical dimensions of lawyering for this era must be given equal attention to – and must be highlighted and integrated with – the significant economic, political, and cultural changes affecting major legal institutions and the people and institutions lawyers serve.
We have chosen to write this essay as a joint statement from a former general counsel of a global corporation, a former managing partner of an international law firm, and a professor of the legal profession at a major law school. We therefore focus our discussion on the four ethical duties in the institutions we know best – corporate legal departments, large law firms, and leading law schools – and on the important connections among them. But we also hope that both the ethical framework we propose and our commitment to a shared responsibility for giving it practical effect will have resonance in the many other important settings in which lawyers work. The four duties are, we believe, central to what it means to be a lawyer, even as the practical expression of these responsibilities will undoubtedly vary by context and will require new and greater collaboration that reaches across many of the profession’s traditional divides.
In the pages that follow, we are mindful of the dramatic changes in both the legal profession and in society that make the realization of our – or any other – ethical vision of lawyering especially difficult today. There is widespread agreement that the legal profession is in a period of stress and transition: its economic models are under duress; the concepts of its professional uniqueness are narrow and outdated; and, as a result, its ethical imperatives are weakened and their sources ill-defined. We are also mindful that some will resist the invitation to review and address the broad array of ethical issues we raise in a time in which so many of the profession’s traditional economic assumptions are in question. Nevertheless, we reject the idea that there is an inherent and irresolvable conflict between “business” and “service.” To the contrary, we believe that, while tradeoffs about resource allocation will certainly be required, the proper recognition of each of the four ethical duties we explore is ultimately essential to the sustainability of “business” – whether that is the “business” of companies, law firms, or law schools, or more broadly, the health of our economic and political system as a whole. We therefore hope that this essay will stimulate an integrated discussion among the broad range of actors with a stake in the future of the legal profession not just about the pressing economic issues in major legal institutions but also about the equally pressing concerns relating to ethical responsibilities.
Canadian Lawyer Magazine (In-House Column), Dec. 29, 2014
HLS Program on Corporate Governance and HKS, Nov. 25, 2014
Bloomberg, Nov. 24, 2014
Corporate Counsel, Nov. 20, 2014
CLP/WilmerHale Press Release, Nov. 20, 2014