It's easy to dissect a legal opinion and come to conclusions in the abstract. But when you begin to realize that the parties involved are real people with real problems, the stakes become infinitely higher. In law school, much of the work you do is abstract and theoretical. And I found it very stimulating and even fun to engage in the collegial debate and analysis common to law school and law students. But in law practice, you are representing real clients. The advice that you provide will have real consequences. In law school, about the only measure of accountability is your grade point average. In law practice the measure is the effect that you have on people's lives.
Which brings me to the point of this blog post. The law school curriculum spends a great deal of time teaching students how to "think like a lawyer." And by the way, this is a critically important skill for lawyers. You will take numerous courses that test your ability to adapt your thinking skills to different situations, different laws and regulations. If you decide on a specialty in law school, you may take numerous courses that fine-tune your skills in that particular specialty.
But when it comes to ethical issues, in general, you will probably only take one course. In my own education, I actually had two courses; the basic ethics course that all law students take (generally in their second or third year), and a corporate practice ethics course. The basic ethics rules for most jurisdictions are very similar. You should visit the ABA website, at http://www.abanet.org/cpr/mrpc/mrpc_toc.html which provides an outline and the model ethical rules.
By the way, this is not intended as a criticism of law schools. The ethics rules are pretty straightforward. And in many cases, you probably already have a good idea of what they look like. We all bring with us to law school and law practice personal ethics which generally translate well. Further, in order to obtain your license to practice law, you are required to pass an ethics exam, called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, which is comprehensive and covers the landscape of legal ethical issues. (see http://www.ncbex.org/multistate-tests/mpre/).
But the purpose of this blog post is to encourage you to begin thinking about ethical issues now. This is because the dilemma with ethical issues is that they can often be so subtle, that we find ourselves in the middle of them with no warning. In the case of other legal issues, generally the firt thing a lawyer tries to do is spot the issue. Once you determine the contractual issue or the tort issue, or whatever it is, you review the rules, apply the facts at hand to these rules and begin to solve the problem.
But with ethical issues, you may be in the middle of something in which an ethical issue is raised before you even realize it. There are all kinds of ethics issues that arise, from conflicts in representation, to conflicts in interest, to attorney communications, and numerous other issues. Some of these issues are intuitive, but others are more complicated and require deeper thought.
This means that your basic ethical framework must be well in place long before the issue arises. Think of ethical training and preparation as a sort of vaccination against ethical illness. By understanding the ethical rules and working through ethical problems in the safety of the classroom (or your own theoretical mind), you will go a long way to avoid finding yourself in the middle of an ethics problem.
I am convinced that many people get into trouble not because they intended to, but because they simply didn't think enough the situation before they acted. In the case of ethical issues, there is often not a great deal of time for aforethought. This is why developing your ethical framework long before a situation arises is so critical. You will be able to navigate your way through treacherous waters, guided by this framework.
A good way to get an idea as to the kinds of ethics issues that lawyers face in the real world is to read a bar journal. I subscribe to the Texas Bar Journal (http://www.texasbar.com/Content/NavigationMenu/Publications/Texas_Bar_Journal1/Texas_Bar_Journal.htm) which is published on a monthly basis. The TBJ includes a section on attorney discipline. Ironically, it's right next to the obitiuary section. Regardless, this section describes sanctions imposed upon lawyers who are charged with ethics violations.
I suggest that you begin to develop your own ethical frame today, alongside the rest of your legal studies. Familiarize yourself now with the ethics rules. Begin to think about the cases you read and issues you work on, in terms of the lawyer ethics involved, in addition to the "black letter" law and IRAC (issue, rule, analysis, conclusion). Whether the professor ever brings up the ethics issues and regardless of whether you are ever tested on them, you need to begin thinking about them now. It will pay dividends in terms of stress avoidance when you are licensed and in practice.
I wish you much success in your legal career. Whether you are planning to take the LSAT, or the bar exam, and everything in between, I know that you will make it. You will become a lawyer. You just will.