Social Responsibility and Giving Back

Years ago, I attended a seminar where the late Attorney Harry M. Philo was one of the speakers. I don’t remember where the seminar was or who the other speakers were, but I will never forget one thing that this very prominent lawyer said, “The primary social responsibility of personal injury lawyers is to prevent accidents and reduce the number of injuries. It is only when we fail in this responsibility that we move to our secondary responsibility of obtaining compensation for our clients.” This message was one of social responsibility and giving back to the community, two things we should take seriously throughout our careers.

Social responsibility is an ethical ideology that focuses on individuals’ obligations to act for the benefit of society as a whole as opposed to acting solely for their own interests. As attorneys, it is our responsibility. As a lawyer, I feel pride when I am able to achieve a good result for a client. I’m also proud of the fact that I am part of a profession that advocates for the general public’s rights and safety. It is one thing as a personal injury attorney to obtain compensation for an injured plaintiff but it is another thing altogether to advocate for a change in the law or raise public awareness to prevent accidents and injuries. This same message applies to all attorneys throughout every practice area: it is our job to successfully advocate for our clients, but it is our social responsibility to act for the benefit of society as a whole.  

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The Need for Transparency

When there is a culture of secrecy within a closed group, information generated in and by those individuals can be kept within the confines of the group. This behavior may lead to public harm if a closed group keeps secret information that negatively affects other individuals who are not group members. When a public harm is a possibility, the group must install transparency so as to prevent that harm. While complete transparency might be extremely difficult, there does need to be some concession to candor and accountability. Lawyers, like many other professional groups, are commonly thought of as a closed group. We, like those in other groups, must be vigilant to maintain some transparency. In doing so, we protect and uphold the integrity of our profession while preventing harm to our clients and other citizens. This need for transparency is best illustrated through examples.

An undeniably important example is the recent conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 of 48 sexual abuse charges.

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From the Inside Out—a Law Student’s Perspective

The Law is full of phraseology drawn from morals, and by mere force of language continually invites us to pass from one domain to the other without perceiving it, as we are sure to do unless we have the boundary constantly before our minds.” 

 –Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., The Path of the Law

While writing my Honors Scholar Thesis my senior year at DePauw University, Justice Holmes’ words became the perfect frame for my interdisciplinary study of legal ethics. This quote was taken from an address from an 1897 Harvard Law Review, The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457, (1897), in which Holmes offers a piece of pragmatic wisdom to the practicing lawyer. In essence, the lawyer should assume the role of “the bad man” who is not concerned with principles of ethics, axioms and systematic reasoning. Instead, the lawyer should be concerned with self-interest, preservation, and the immediate consequences influencing one’s actions. From this perspective, the lawyer better positions himself to protect those interests that “the bad man” might have in predicting how the court will respond, given the facts and circumstances that surround a particular case. As a somewhat critical undergraduate student, I noted that this perspective makes broad, “questionable” assumptions about the client while offering a somewhat cynical philosophy for the role that the lawyer must play for a successful study and practice of law. The emphasis on practice and prediction is a hallmark of Holmes’ pragmatic view of the law with experience at the foundation.

Holmes represented a critical juncture in the theory and practice of law, drawing attention to the intellectual content of the law, reviving historical relationships between law, ethics, and practical wisdom. Holmes believed in demystifying the law, removing notions of omnipresent knowledge and appeals to “the infinite” in order to focus on practical application and reasonable prediction. As a philosophy student, with a focus in ethics and morality, I was never a fan of pragmatism. In fact, I was rather perturbed by Holmes’ candid admission. Nonetheless, I found Holmes’ position to be “reasonable” and incredibly helpful as I embarked on my interdisciplinary study of legal ethics, specifically focusing on the duty to protect client confidences.

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