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.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica September 9, 2009 at 9:05 am

The exams at my law school actually aren’t proctored. Someone from our Records office oversees the beginning and end of the exam (making sure that we all sign in, get set up with the test, and turn it in afterward) but other than that, nobody is there watching us. We do have the exam software that blocks out all of our other applications, though.

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Joshua Auriemma September 9, 2009 at 9:43 am

Good in theory — tough in practice. How do you catch people before they start law school? If people were caught before, presumably it’s in some kind of academic record and will make it difficult for them to get into law school. I imagine that’s pretty much the best we can do.

Also, surely you’re not implying that passing the MPRE isn’t indicative of high moral fiber :D

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Kaintuckeean September 9, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Correction: Yet a few years months before this duty is thrust upon us, law students are not fully trusted.

Not to mention the special software we have to download. Really renders the Honor Codes useless…

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ouij September 10, 2009 at 5:33 am

“Ethics” are bunk. Don’t believe me? Why did it take our august profession until 1970 to even draft its first codified statement of professional ethics: The Model Code of Professional Responsibility? Despite the lofty rhetoric, our codes of professional ethics are nothing but quasi-penal codes: they define offenses and sanctions for those offenses.

It doesn’t matter what a lawyer–or a law student’s–inner, subjective motivations are. We can only judge from actions and punish harms. Ideally, a lawyer should genuinely wish to do the right thing all the time, for the right reasons. Pragmatically, he does the right thing because the applicable quasi-penal code gives him no other choice but to do so.

The presence of any monitoring during law school exams is an analogous situation. Yes, we would prefer that law students act ethically, of their own accord, and not cheat. But we have no guarantee that they will do so. Thus, we define the offense, proclaim a punishment, and create the means to enforce our will: your hated proctors.

You contend that “attorneys will not have a proctor over their shoulder examining every move they make to ensure that the attorney maintains his ethical obligations.” He doesn’t have to: the threat of punishment should be enough, coupled with the affirmative duty imposed on his fellow attorneys to denounce him for his ethical lapses.

Following your logic, the mere presence of the police is an undue burden on regular citizens. Since each citizen should himself know that it is his duty not to break the law, why maintain a force dedicated to detect and detain lawbreakers?

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Meg November 14, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Yea, the exams at our school aren’t really watched either. I mean, the prof will come in and hang out to distribute the exam and for a little while in case we have any questions, then they usually wander off. We can come and go as we please- for example, during Torts in first year, a bunch of people forgot the Occupier’s Liability Act, and just went to the library to print it off. And we hand write exams, so the internet isn’t an issue.

Plus, our ethics class is more about applying the Law Society’s rules, not being ‘moral’. In fact, we usually draw a distinction between what is ‘right’ and what is within the duties of our profession. I think it’s a great class, since it’s shown where there grey areas are, and makes us recognize that our personal moral issues can help, but don’t solve our professional dilemmas.

Oh, and ethics isn’t a required class in Canada. It’s highly recommended as a class and tested on the bar exams/CPLED course, but it’s not required as a class. I’m not sure how I feel about that, since my law school does require it, but it’s not mandated by the various law societies, nor by the government.

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Biff April 13, 2010 at 7:02 pm

@Meg,

no wonder Canadian schools are so highly regarded!

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