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Teaching professional ethics, Professional responsibility, Law governing lawyers, Legal ethics


Educational Methods | Legal Education | Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility


One of the themes of the 2002 annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools ("AALS") has been that we, as teachers, must do better at engaging our students "where they're at." A number of speakers on various panels addressed the consumerist mentality among students, the desire of a population raised on MTV for multimedia lectures that resemble rapidly paced entertainment with high production values, and the suspicion of students toward claims of authority by teachers that are not backed up by respect and hard work. In addition, I would add a further observation as a teacher of ethics to both undergraduate and law students--students are profoundly skeptical of the capacity of moral reasoning to deliver conclusions that are mandatory for them.

This essay briefly sketches a methodology for thinking about and teaching ethics to law students. It is not intended to be a technical defense of any particular metaethical position, and indeed it is aimed at non-specialist law teachers. Part of the reluctance to teach ethics beyond the rules may stem from a fear that starting down that path will lead a teacher into a morass of names and jargon with which he or she is not familiar. Although doing interdisciplinary scholarship in professional ethics does require some familiarity with the moral and political philosophy literature, competent teaching of professional ethics does not.


This article pre-dates the author’s tenure at Cornell Law School.

A more detailed version of the argument can be found in an article entitled Teaching Ethics in an Atmosphere of Skepticism and Relativism.

Publication Citation

Published in: The Journal of the Legal Profession, vol. 26 (2001-2002).