A Human Rights Code of Conduct: Ambitious Moral Aspiration for a Public Interest Law Office or Law Clinic

By Bartlett, Lauren E. | St. John's Law Review, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

A Human Rights Code of Conduct: Ambitious Moral Aspiration for a Public Interest Law Office or Law Clinic


Bartlett, Lauren E., St. John's Law Review


INTRODUCTION

Incivility and unethical behavior in the legal profession have long been topics of concern in the United States.1 In recent years, many state and local bar associations, as well as the American Bar Association ("ABA"), have taken steps to address incivility, including adopting professional rules, amending lawyers' oaths of office, and more.2 Yet current events continue to test limits of tolerance for incivility and unethical behavior.3 What is more, too many lawyers are unhappy and unhealthy in the legal profession, which has been tied to ethics and integrity.4 in these difficult times for the legal profession, moral aspiration,5 or the hope or ambition for high ethical integrity, is incredibly important.6

Lawyers seek moral aspiration from a variety of sources, including other lawyers,7 religion, and cultural norms.8 They also seek the rules, standards, and guidance applicable to lawyers in the United States.9 This Article offers an alternative source for moral aspiration for lawyering10-human rights-and suggests establishing a human rights code of conduct in a public interest11 law office or law clinic to create a dignified, respectful, and safe space, and to hold colleagues, students, and others, to high ethical standards. The idea of a human rights code of conduct for a law office or law clinic builds on recent scholarship applying human rights principles to lawyering 1 In addition, this idea follows the recent proliferation of corporations choosing to adopt social justice and human rights related codes of conduct.13

A human rights code of conduct provides practical, consistent, and significant ways to apply human rights principles to lawyering. Modeled loosely after professionalism codes or civility codes across the United States,14 a human rights code of conduct draws on human rights principles and provides ambitious moral aspiration for attorneys and law students. A human rights code of conduct provides practical guidance for navigating difficult ethical dilemmas, without necessitating additional regulation. A human rights code of conduct also promotes attorney and law student happiness and helps the reputation of the legal profession as a whole.

Part i of this Article argues that the lack of moral aspiration in legal ethics rules helps contribute to unhappy and unhealthy law students and lawyers, undermining the legal profession. Part ii reviews the existing rules and standards that guide the ethical behavior of lawyers in the United States, arguing that all too often the binding rules focus on providing guide posts, signaling where behavior is unacceptable and disciplinary action is possible, instead of providing moral aspiration and options or next steps to describe what a lawyer should do to deal with an ethical dilemma.

Part III of this Article argues that human rights principles- the concepts of morality underlying human rights law-provide ambitious moral aspiration that lawyers can look to for guidance in navigating ethical dilemmas. Part III explains both what human rights principles are and how human rights principles can be a good source of moral aspiration for attorneys and law students.

Part IV argues why human rights principles are an appropriate source of moral aspiration for lawyering. Part V of this Article discusses the idea of drafting and adopting a human rights code of conduct and provides sample human rights codes of conduct, as well as suggestions for leading efforts to adopt a human rights code of conduct at a law office or law clinic.

I. A LACK OF MORAL ASPIRATION UNDERMINES THE LEGAL PROFESSION

The legal profession is in the midst of a "crisis of professionalism" and has been for some time.15 Bar leaders, legal practitioners, and scholars have put forward various arguments as to how the profession got itself into such a mess and why the crisis persists.16 Criticisms vary and include the widespread lack of morality among lawyers,17 bad reputation of attorneys,18 types of personalities attracted to the law,19 need to amend the ethical rules and standards that currently govern the behavior of lawyers,20 failure of law schools to instill the proper values in their graduates,21 and more. …

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