Why it’s time to teach morality in law schools

There is a profound lesson to be learned from last year’s financial meltdown that needs further discussion in the halls of our nation’s law schools.

While there were many factors that contributed to the economic crisis, at its heart it was fueled by greed. Bankers, accountants and, yes, lawyers, all contributed to the greed that swept through our country over the past decade.

Lawyers helped ensure that what happened was mostly legal. Bankers, politicians and accountants pushed the limits of the law, being careful not to overstep the line. But while lawyers may have acted legally, they did not always act morally or responsibly.

As political commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek this past summer, “No system … can work without a sense of ethics and values at its core. No matter what reforms we put in place, without common sense, judgment and an ethical standard, they will prove inadequate.”

Our Founding Fathers discovered the same principle when creating the framework for this country.

As James Madison wrote: “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

Our legal system largely operates through self-regulation. For years, this did not present a problem, as lawyers saw themselves as private-sector participants with public responsibilities. They used to learn their morals at home, in their churches and, perhaps surprisingly to some, in our schools. But the world has changed.

Former Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark observed in 1975 that the influences of church and family, in teaching the values of honesty and integrity, “have drastically diminished in importance in this country and no other force has arisen to take their place.”

And now as 2009 comes to a close, our world is so much faster, bigger and competitive.

Technology, globalization and our thirst for more have fueled a world where the desire for profit outpaces our desire to do what is right. This rush to largesse has, in many cases, left our morals and ethics behind in the dust.

And it appears as if too many law schools are currently not preparing today’s lawyers for the profit-driven legal marketplace of today, rife with its moral quandaries.

Many have long argued that it is impossible or inappropriate to teach morals when the various students at an institution all arrive with a different set of values.

But this belies the point that there are a common set of values that all reasonable men can agree upon — such as honesty, fairness and compassion.

And while some argue that legal ethics are complex, that is precisely why our law schools should be discussing the concepts of fairness and compassion in relation to the law and representing clients.

When clients want to act legally, but not morally, their attorneys should be prepared to advise them beyond the law and to take stands as befits their own moral character.

In doing so, lawyers have the opportunity and the responsibility to instill within their clients, our judicial system and this nation, a sense of what is good and right.

And that reminds me of a passage attributed to 18th century author Alexis de Tocqueville:

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there; … Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Today, it is the institutions of higher education that must carry forth the banners of morality, virtue and responsibility in order to keep America great. And law schools play a greater role in that responsibility than perhaps any other institution of higher learning.

It is time to take action — even if that action is the “little bitty thing” of having students write their own personal code of conduct.

by Jack Crittenden, editor-in-chief of The National Jurist

(This column also ran in the 2009 October issue of The National Jurist.)