Do Law Schools Teach Students to be Ethical?

by Josh Camson on September 9, 2009

ethics-textbookIn order to gain admittance to the bar, law students must take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). Law schools across the country require that students take an ethics course which, in theory, prepares them for the MPRE and the ethical practice of law. In this author’s opinion, many law schools only give lip service to an ethical education. They require the coursework, but not the application of ethical standards in the everyday grind of law school.

The largest glaring hole in the practical application of ethics in law school is exams. In many law schools, exams are proctored by staff or fellow law students. This is completely antithetic to the practice of law. Once we become lawyers, we are expected to hold our clients’ information in confidence, act for our client before ourselves, and avoid any number of other ethical pitfalls. Nonetheless, law schools cannot trust their students to sit quietly in a room and take a test without cheating. In the real world, attorneys will not have a proctor over their shoulder examining every move they make to ensure that the attorney maintains his ethical obligations. Yet a few years before this duty is thrust upon us, law students are not fully trusted.

Proctors are not the only sign of mistrust. Many schools also require that students using laptops to take their exam install some kind of exam software. This software, when activated, prevents the user from accessing the files or programs on their computer. The idea here is that it will prevent students from looking at their notes, finding answers on the internet during an exam, etc. The software prevents the law student from violating his or her ethical duty not to cheat.

It seems that instead of shepherding potentially unethical students through law school and watching their every move, these institutions should stop unethical lawyers before they start. It would be better for the profession if unethical students realized their dilemma and were possibly caught cheating before they are allowed to go out and represent clients and hold someone’s money or future in their hands. Of course, the problem becomes how to catch the cheaters without proctors or exam software. One way would of course be fellow students. The curve system inherently encourages students to keep their peers from doing well. However, many students would probably feel uncomfortable ratting out their peers.

There must be some kind of middle ground between a Big Brother approach to law school exams, and a laissez-faire method where those that cheat won’t get caught. I don’t have a solution, but hopefully somebody does.