morality and the practice of law

Should lawyers “do the right thing” in addition to “being right”?  A favorite cartoon depicts two lawyers at a desk evidently discussing strategy. One lawyer says to the other: “Is it right?… Is it fair?  Get a grip, Carlton—we’re a law firm!”


In an interesting study issued recently, the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence found that financial advisors who demonstrated high levels of “moral and emotional competency” nearly doubled the S&P 500 return on their client portfolios in the years 2001 through 2004, delivering an average return of 25%. 

Of the various attributes studied, integrity had the single strongest impact on client returns. “Results showed that Integrity was the key behavioral competency which predicted the most positive returns for clients." 

Integrity was defined as acting consistently with what one says is important, in other words “walking the talk.”  An example was an advisor willing to give up a lucrative client rather than compromise his/her principles, such as ultimately recommending that a client seek advice from another advisor because the advisor could not in good conscience implement a plan believed to put the client at significant financial risk.


In the process of updating his 1996 book The Honest Hour: The Ethics of Time-Based Billing by Attorneys, William George Ross determined that lawyers in 2007 are significantly more likely than a decade ago to pad their bills with unnecessary hours or bill two clients for the same time. Almost 55% (up from 40%) of associates and partners surveyed report performing unnecessary work, and 35% (up from 23%) say they bill two clients for the same time. The number of lawyers who believe double billing is ethical also rose from 35% in 1996 to 48%, and more than two-thirds of lawyers say they have specific knowledge of bill-padding by others.   


In a May 2, 2007 article entitled “From Moral Partners to a Moral Firm”, Gregory S. Gallopoulos, the managing partner of Jenner & Block, suggests that the integrated enterprise model that many successful law firms are adopting now, in which strategy and vision belong to the entity as a whole rather than to individual partners, risks producing a vacuum in the area of firm morals. 

“Under the entity model, as individual attorneys cede decision-making authority to the firm, including authority for decisions regarding professional responsibility and ethical behavior, they tend to renounce (at least implicitly) personal responsibility for moral decision making. Law firms as entities, however, have no inherent mechanism for replacing personal moral responsibility with institutional moral responsibility. In consequence, morality can fall through the cracks, allowing corruption to ooze into the enterprise.“

Continue Reading What’s Morals Got To Do With It?