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Legal Ethics 2008

Report on the 3rd International Legal Ethics Conference

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13-16th July 2008

Griffith University, Australia

The 3rd International Legal Ethics Conference was held at Griffith University, Australia, on 13-16 July 2008. Lisa Webley (University of Westminster) reports.

Legal Ethics 2008 was the third in a series of conferences launched by Kim Economides and Julian Webb at Exeter in 2004. Hosted jointly by the University of Queensland and Griffith University on Australia’s Gold Coast, this was the largest event to date, an action packed, thought provoking and stimulating meeting, with a good mix of theory both high and practical and practitioner focused research, plus a strong education theme.

Keynote addresses were presented by Professors David Luban (Georgetown), Gino Dal Pont (Tasmania), Deborah Rhode (Stanford) and Brad Wendel (Cornell), together with a conference address by Kim Economides (Exeter). Taken together, their papers demonstrated that there is a lively continuing debate about the nature and extent of legal ethics, and about our duties as lawyers and educators to bring ethical debate into the classroom.

The legal education stream sought to take the ethical component forward in undergraduate, postgraduate and professional studies. Papers were given by academics from many jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, South Africa, the UK and the US, as well as Taiwan. Much of the research focused on the difficulty of teaching legal ethics, which of course has been explored at length by many academics in the field. The challenge was laid down at the outset in papers by Lawrence Hellman and David Chavkin from the US, which considered the implications of the 2007 Carnegie Foundation report on legal education. This suggests that, even in the context of over 30 years of compulsory professional responsibility courses, US law schools have not adequately prepared putative lawyers for ethical decision making in law firms.

The relative virtues of standalone and pervasive approaches were discussed by Michael Robertson from Australia, who provided examples of pervasive legal ethics teaching within the law curriculum, accompanied by the note of caution that such an enterprise requires a clear conception of what it means to learn ‘legal ethics’ – the million dollar question for all legal ethics teachers. Gonzala Villalta Puig, again from Australia, continued the theme of pervasive legal ethics teaching by considering how we construct coherent learning aims and outcomes in the field of legal ethics to assist in the development of legal ethical judgement, taking into account cognitive, affective and skills objectives.

Alternative approaches were explored by Jefferies (a neo-Aristotelian approach to teaching and learning legal ethics) and Philip Schrag (teaching legal ethics through role play rather than the doctrinal approach). Helen Krusse from South Africa gave an incisive paper on teaching legal ethics in South Africa and how this may be used as a spring board for institutional and country-wide change, and Brent Cotter reflected on his experience of teaching legal ethics in the Canadian context. Interestingly, Cotter particularly emphasised the need to consider student demographics in determining the way in which a curriculum should be structured and delivered. The final session included a paper from Elspeth McNeil and Kristoffer Greaves from Australia, while Richard Wu from Hong Kong spoke on the future integration of skills and ethics teaching in Hong Kong professional legal education and Brian Kennedy spoke on new directions in Taiwan’s legal profession.

What are the lessons of the conference for legal ethics in the undergraduate and professional curriculum in the UK? What was clear was that a small discrete professional responsibility module may go some way to assisting in ethical awareness raising but appears to give little assistance in developing students’ ethical judgment. The examples of pervasive ethical role play, of multi-layered resources on hand for legal ethics teachers, and the integration of ethics with skills teaching and clinic provided much food for thought. Nigel Duncan’s paper, proposing to develop an international legal ethics resource for law teachers, may be the starting point that allows us to share best practice as well as our mistakes. The legal education stream in itself was an invaluable resource in this regard, and it is hoped that many of these papers will be included in a number of planned post-conference publications.

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Griffith University, Australia

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