After a year off from teaching legal ethics, I need to prepare before my course starts in January. Getting up to speed with the shifting “law of lawyering” is obviously part of the job. Students need to know the rules that they will have to follow when they practice law; that’s a big part of the reason why the course is mandatory. Obeying the law of lawyering usually accords with self-interest. It keeps one out of trouble with the law society, and it’s a good career move.
However professionals are ideally more than just rationally self-interested rule-followers. Lawyers (like other people) have the potential to behave altruistically. In other words, they may act contrary to their own material interests, in the absence of any legal obligation to do so. Fostering altruistic legal professionalism is often considered part of the job description for teachers of legal ethics.
In the practice of law, there seem to be two very different versions of altruism. A generously altruistic lawyer sacrifices material self-interest in order to help clients. A courageously altruistic lawyer sacrifices material self-interest in order to confront and resist wrongful behaviour – including, potentially, the wrongful behaviour of the lawyer’s own client.
Generous Lawyer Altruism
Working pro bono, discounting bills for those of modest means, and accepting financially unappealing retainers are all examples of “generous” lawyer altruism. These lawyers sacrifice their own material interests in a way that improves their clients’ position. The clients who benefit are typically those of modest means, who would not otherwise have access to justice.
This happens all the time, but some lawyers stand out. Calgary’s Jean Munn has been recognized with multiple awards for the countless hours she has spent assisting immigrants without charge. Dugald Christie gave up a corporate law career and dedicated his life to spreading law clinics and fighting for legal aid. He died while riding his bicycle across the country as part of this campaign.
Courageous Lawyer Altruism
Courageous altruism is very different. Courageously altruistic lawyers confront powerful people, states, and corporations. The clearest examples are those who risk their liberty and even their lives in resisting autocratic governments. In Iran, human rights lawyers such as Shirin Ebadi and Nasrin Satoudeh have represented dissidents and activists against the regime. The price these women pay for their courage has included imprisonment, ostracization, and threats of violence.
Sometimes the powerful parties confronted by courageously altruistic lawyers are their own clients. Courageous altruists refuse to help clients pursue dishonest or illegal goals, and they refuse client pressure use dishonest or illegal means to accomplish even legitimate goals. Courageous altruists may publicize things about clients that they don’t want heard by anyone. Here in Canada, Department of Justice lawyer Edgar Schmidt sued his own employer for failing to properly review the constitutionality of legislation. He was suspended without pay. “Blowing the whistle” on illegal client activity is a form of courageous altruism. (The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct give lawyers much more scope to blow the whistle on client misconduct than Canada’s Rules do).
Both types of lawyer altruism require a legal professional to deviate from material self-interest. The generous altruist sacrifices income or leisure time. The courageous altruist is likely to irritate — if not seriously offend — powerful people including clients, employers and potential future employers.
Generous altruism and courageous altruism are both aspirations of legal professionalism. However they can’t be taught in the same straightforward doctrinal fashion that the law of lawyering can. The whole point is that these behaviours are not required by law. Nor are they in the realm of good career advice for those who seek to succeed in material terms. Stories of inspirational lawyers such as those mentioned above may be the best way to include altruism in legal ethics education.