7 ways that lawyering is 'ethics in action'
Eric Lindner. Photo courtesy of Eric Lindner.
Winding down my Polish airport real estate development projects, I sold my Polish car parking company in 2011 to a Belgian company, closing the deal in a Warsaw conference room packed with 11 lawyers and towers of documents in Polish and English, even though the buyers primarily spoke French.
One of my partners at the time, who was also director of Georgetown University’s real estate master’s program, asked whether I might like to teach a course in ethics. I said “Sure, why not?” To my surprise, “ethics in action” turned out to be a course in law. Indeed, I can think of no better definition of lawyering than “ethics in action.”
The 600-plus students whom it’s been my privilege to teach (online-only) have come from all walks of life: ex-Navy SEALs from the boonies, affordable housing experts from Chicago’s South Side, Indian-born doctors who’ve quit medicine to manage their parents’ Nevada hotels, and Russian-born tort lawyers soaking up the sun in Miami. Real estate has a universal appeal. It’s truly one of a kind (legally, also, in terms of specific performance) and something refreshingly tangible in this day and age of artificial intelligence. A robot can’t replace a farm, a forest or a skyscraper. Yet.
The best thing about being a teacher is the collaborative excursion. Together, my students and I have journeyed back to my first law school course, “Elements of the Law,” designed and taught by the distinguished post-Watergate U.S. Attorney General Edward H. Levi.
We’ve grappled with written assignments that have required owning up to ethical missteps (including my own). The ensuing discussions have prompted rigorous reflection and soul-searching as to how we might right our “ethical compass” and helped us see and appreciate ethics’ umbilical connection with law—in the Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments, Confucianism, even the ABA’s noble mission, which, per its website, includes how it “was founded in 1878 on a commitment to set the legal and ethical foundation for the American nation.”
Here are the main lessons that my ethics students have helped teach me about being a better lawyer.
1. Laws boil down to norms
The Constitution’s first 10 amendments (aka the Bill of Rights) are categorically different from the four laws of thermodynamics. While the “What?” and/or “How?” might seem key to understanding and resolving many issues, for lawyers, the dispositive question is more likely the “Why?” or “What should?”
2. Semantics are slippery
So many words have become debased and/or conflated that, rather than clarify, they obscure. We discussed former South Africa President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and how he described the food on Robben Island: “The authorities used to say that we received a balanced diet; it was indeed balanced—between the unpalatable and the inedible.” One thing my students and I have realized is that when people start throwing around terms, before engaging them, it’s prudent to ask them: “Before we get too far, would you please define your terms?”
3. Everyone engages in lawyering on an almost-daily basis—or should
Sometimes we’re called to be impassioned advocates, sometimes cool-as-a-cucumber counselors and sometimes officers of the court or other public servants. As lawyers, it’s wise to remember someone doesn’t need a JD or to have passed a bar exam to be thinking or acting like a lawyer. This can help us come to terms better and faster.
4. Like real estate, law is inherently site-specific
I mean much more fundamentally than the important issues of jurisdiction or venue. Springing from the natural terrain, local customs and inhabitants, laws are attached to places, often invisibly. The National Labor Relations Board can issue all the black-letter rules and guidelines that it wants, but grievances in Detroit will be arbitrated very differently from those in Savannah, Georgia.
5. Good lawyers focus on sustainability
I don’t mean belonging to the John Muir Association, laudable though it is. I mean how the quiet, profound, pacifist ethics of Buddhism have endured 2,500 years versus the typically much more flash-in-the-pan loud and banal variants of fascism. All good business leaders understand the importance not just of a competitive advantage but one that’s robustly sustainable. The same holds true for lawyering. A clever argument before a local judge that fails to take into account an appellate court’s broader mandate and views could prove pyrrhic. Likewise, an overly sharp use of fine print may well come back to haunt you.
6. Diversity matters in a very substantive, sometimes-pivotal way
Taking the time to really get to know your client, judge, potential jurors, even opposing counsel, will reap big dividends. Being mindful when using terms such as “family values” and “the Protestant work ethic” is not the same as censoring your personal ethical worldview. It’s just common sense decency and smart lawyering. I recall some management guru back in the 1980s saying when thinking about compensation, “To treat people fairly, you must treat them differently.” Life is never one-size-fits-all. Savvy lawyers appreciate the benefit of leveraging (not manipulating) diversity.
7. There’s no substitute for hard work
A student once wrote: “Personal ethics in leadership is just like any other skill that needs to be maintained over time.” Her point reminded me of The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, whose central point was love is hard to “find” because you don’t “find it.” You might initially come across it, inchoate, along the road while strolling, like seeing a shiny penny or unearthing a diamond in the rough. But the real test is endurance, and as athletes know, it doesn’t just “happen.” It takes work. Writers know this too. As Saul Bellow once said: “It’s not like I’m taking dictation from a muse. It is labor.” Good lawyers know this too, whether by taking more than just the minimum CLE courses or realizing that the benefits of pro bono redound first and foremost to us “free lawyers,” as opposed to our clients.
Eric Lindner’s career has included being the research assistant to the dean of the University of Chicago Law School, interning for Bill Gates Sr. just before Microsoft’s meteoric IPO, joint venturing with the Polish government and authoring books. His second book, Tiger in the Sea: the Ditching of Flying Tiger 923 and the Desperate Struggle for Survival, is currently being adapted into a streaming series. He also writes for a newsletter called The Engine Under the Hood: The Power of Principled Leadership, and his work has appeared in Apple News+, Publishers Weekly, American Heritage, Popular Mechanics, Smerconish.com, the Economist, Time and the Washington Post.
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