How Hierarchical Law Practice Can Lead to Unethical Choices
Posted May 22, 2008 8:11 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
Lawyers often find themselves in situations that produce high levels of conformity and obedience, making it difficult to resist unethical demands.
That’s the conclusion of Suffolk University law professor Andrew Perlman, who recommends changes in the law designed to prod lawyers to do the right thing despite the pressure to conform.
Perlman cites studies that show opinions of group members are affected by a group’s overall judgment, particularly when the correct answer is ambiguous. He also refers to another study in which 65 percent of test subjects obeyed an experimenter’s order to administer an electric shock to an elderly, bound man who pleaded to be let go.
This insight into human behavior "suggests that there is often a significant gap between what the legal ethics rules require and how lawyers will typically behave,” Perlman wrote in an article (PDF), “Unethical Obedience by Subordinate Attorneys: Lessons from Social Psychology.”
Newly minted lawyers may see ambiguity in ethics rules and doubt their legal assessment of a situation, Perlman says. The more ambiguous an ethics question, the greater the tendency to conform, he wrote. The hierarchical nature of law practice reinforces conformity, since those with low social status are more likely to comply with a directive from a higher authority, he adds.
Perlman proposes giving whistle-blower protections to lawyers and strengthening their duty to report misconduct.
A hat tip to the Legal Profession Blog, which linked to the paper.