Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ethical Quandary.

So last week, I was in a weird position.

A fellow student asked for help with some legal research; nothing too involved, and nothing relating to classwork. Essentially, it involved figuring out the requirements to make a motion, what papers needed to be filed along with the motion, what the standards were for the motion being granted. No big deal.

Except that this motion involved an aspect of Massachusetts law that is in dire need of reform. And it wasn't just an academic exercise; this classmate was doing the research for an attorney that she was working for outside of school.

So I pointed my classmate to a legal encyclopedia, figuring that pointing someone in the general direction of pre-existing answers is so remote from actually giving someone an answer, or rendering material help to the outside attorney's actual clients...that my feelings about the law on this topic were not only irrelevant, but kinda self-indulgent, too. It's not as if Mass Practice is some kind of secret weapon; it takes up several shelves in the library, and is often considered the most-consulted secondary source in the state. So I told my classmate about my ethical problems with the law, and I helped her anyway.

Then my classmate couldn't quite find the answers in the encyclopedia.

So she asked for a bit more help. I actually found the relevant passages, and the forms, and noted what the relevant law was on the topic. And, again, it would be self-indulgent to imply that the research help I did was anything irreplicable- the research took me about- two and a half minutes.

But, did I do the right thing?

If people are against things, say, laws creating tax shelters, or the old-timey laws that protected married women's property from creditors, for ethical reasons - is it ethical to help others take advantage of them? How removed can the help be before you're compromising yourself? Can you render help to someone who wouldn't have the authority to make the decision to not exploit this law, or this regulation? My fellow student didn't have the choice between using this law, and counseling a client to use another ... she had the choice between completing the work assigned to her, and not completing it. The attorney would have probably groaned, picked up the same volume I did, and came to the same result.

But, in rendering legal services, many of these decisions lie with the client, not the attorney, so the attorney may claim that even they don't have the authority to choose to exploit or not exploit a certain law. They may argue that zealous advocacy actually requires the use of this or that law, regardless of personal ethics.

So it may not be self-indulgent to worry about the ethics of helping someone with something, even if the help rendered is not unique, and even if the person who is helped doesn't have the authority to avoid the controversial tactic.

So what do you think? Does it matter whether or not you're personally going to profit from giving this advice?

Follow your ethics?

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