Review: The Moral Compass of the American Lawyer

The Moral Compass of the American Lawyer
The Moral Compass of the American Lawyer: Truth, Justice, Power, and Greed
Richard Zitrin and Carol M. Langford
New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999

Review Copyright © 2002 Garret Wilson — 14 August 2002 8:45am

While many think it paradoxical that the word "moral" and "lawyer" could ever appear together in the same sentence, Richard Zitrin and Carol M. Langford have written a book that explores moral issues lawyers face. The Moral Compass of the American Lawyer, using actual cases, articles, studies, and fictitious situations, examines a lawyer's duty to represent a client while maintaining ethical commitments of truth and justice to themselves and the public.

The purpose of the book is less than clear. It is not meant to be purely educational. As a reference or a research tool it falls short: many of the cases mentioned are not even cited by case name, and many of the anecdotes are stores from newspapers such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe. It doesn't offer enough guidelines to be rigorously instructional.

The book certainly serves as a vehicle for the authors' own views. Their opinions are staked boldly, often maverickly, but often neglect to impart the logical framework that supports those ideas. When discussing a lawyer's solicitation to family members of the TWA Flight 800 victims' family members, for example Zitrin and Langford blatantly call such actions "egregious conduct" that should not be excused (128), without fully explaining their position and listing the reasons for opposing opinions.

Moral Compass is furthermore not an examination of morals and how they should be determined. There are no studies of a priori versus utilitarian arguments for actions, and no appeal to moral philosophers of the past. The authors rather assume the reasons for their positions are self-evident; in some cases their reasons are easily visible, but in other cases the arguments are far from evident or, if evident, not completely persuasive.

The closest categorization for this work may be that it is a discussion starter, the groundwork for jumping into the debates surrounding ethics in the legal profession. Such a view makes sense: the authors teach ethics classes at several law schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they will be using the book to supplement discussions two days from now in my first-week law classes.

Richard Zitrin and Carol Langford have created an engrossing read on the lively debate surrounding attorneys and ethics. Its subtitle, Truth, Justice, Power, and Greed, indicates the wild, intriguing nature of real court cases that can be found within its pages. Just be aware that the "moral compass" it aspires to provide may be more a reflection of the authors' ideas than a result of a rigorously defined framework for deciding ethically tough decisions.