Most newly minted attorneys and law students agree: It’s one thing to discuss the Rules of Professional Responsibility and ethics in the law. It’s another thing to determine how a junior attorney, especially at a large law firm, should handle what he/she perceives as an ethics violation.
The challenge of what to do is not new to the practice of law, but it can be very new to each class of attorneys arriving each year at law firms worldwide. And the stakes are high; careers, reputations, and even jobs are on the line. As a law student preparing to start the summer at a large law firm, I leaned on prior military experience to consider how I might handle it. But was I right?
Thankfully, two weeks prior to my summer at the firm, I was a 2016 Law Fellow with the program Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE). There, FASPE founder David Goldman offered the answer:
- Find a peer at the firm who could help me identify a mentor.
- Find a mentor in whom I could confide my concerns about ethics issues and help me identify the right resource.
- Use that resource wisely to address concerns.
Law students and junior attorneys take classes and exams about professional responsibility, and they receive periodic training as practicing attorneys. Is that enough? No. Classes, tests, and Powerpoint can convey knowledge about professional responsibility and ethics, but they do not weave ethics into the daily lives of attorneys. They do not fundamentally alter how attorneys think about ethical dilemmas they face.
Instead of helping to inform a thought process at every step of the way, the existing system creates external boundaries within which thought about ethical concerns should take place. Over time, these boundaries can fade, and the resulting ethics failures can have repercussions for our entire profession.
FASPE aims to change that. It provides a visceral experience, something one does not forget, and it leverages the power of mentorship to wash away the barriers that prevent attorneys from speaking up when they encounter dubious behavior. FASPE utilizes the Holocaust as a historical case study of the role of ethics by examining the German legal system during the Nazi regime. It is an immensely powerful reminder of what is really at stake, especially at a time when we confront an uncertain future in the wake of a divisive year for American society.
Initially, I was somewhat unsure how the program could link the Holocaust to contemporary concerns, but I found that visits to Auschwitz and other Holocaust-related sites infused gravity into discussions about otherwise mundane topics. Sitting in the room at the House of the Wannsee Conference, where in January 1942, a group of mid-level German bureaucrats—most trained as lawyers—agreed on ways to enact the Final Solution (the Nazi plan to annihilate all the Jews of Europe), our group’s discussion about balancing careers, ambition, and ideals resonated in a different way than it would have in a run-of-the-mill professional responsibility course. So too, a seminar on contemporary government lawyering, held on the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo, was heightened by the power of place.
FASPE was the best experience of my law school career. The 2016 program was led by David Luban, professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown University, whose expertise in the field of ethics, morality, and the law is unparalleled. Professor Luban and the FASPE team led discussions on ethics at multiple levels, tying academic learning about professional responsibility to the real-world implications of ethical dilemmas.
These discussions were not centered on international human rights or public interest law. Rather, FASPE addresses the ethical challenges that all lawyers face. It profoundly changed how I think about ethics and the role ethics play in professional life. FASPE taught me the importance of the individual in giving ethics a voice. I am also more aware of specific situations in which ethical dilemmas may arise, and how I might deal with those issues.
Overall, I am much better equipped to navigate ethical challenges. Most of all, I made life-long friends through FASPE. I encourage all law students to apply.