On the Morality of the Legal Profession

by Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898)

Robert Lewis Dabney

Publication Date: 1859

Many years ago, a lawyer, distinguished for his eloquence and high social character, successfully defended a vile murderer, and, by his tact, boldness and emotion, secured a verdict of acquittal. When the accused was released, he descended into the crowd of the court house to receive the congratulations of his degraded companions, and, almost wild with elation, advanced toward his lawyer, offering his hand, with profuse expressions of admiration and gratitude. The dignified lawyer sternly joined his own hands behind his back and turned away, saying: "I touch no man's hand that is foul with murder."

But in what light did this lawyer learn that this criminal was too base to be recognized as a fellow man? The court had pronounced him innocent! It was only by the light of his own private judgment—a private judgment formed not only in advance of, but in the teeth of, the official verdict. Where, now, were all the quibbles by which this honorable gentleman had persuaded himself to lend his professional skill to protect from a righteous verdict a wretch too vile to touch his hand? Doubtless, this lawyer's understanding spoke now, clear enough, in some such terms as these: "my hand is my own; it is purely a personal question to myself whether I shall give it to this murderer; and, in deciding that personal question, I have a right to be guided by my own personal opinion. In claiming this, I infringe no legal right to life, liberty or possessions, which the constituted authorities have restored him."

But was not the lawyer's tongue his own, in the same way as his hand? Was not the question, whether he could answer to his God for having used his tongue to prevent the punishment of crime, as much a private personal, individual matter, to be decided by his own private judgment, as the question whether he should shake hands with a felon?

Let us suppose another case: a prominent lawyer defends a man of doubtful character from the charge of fraud, and rescues him, by his skill, from his well-deserved punishment. But now this scurvy fellow comes forward and claims familiar access to the society of the honorable lawyer's house, and aspires to the hand of his daughter in marriage. He immediately receives a significant hint that he is not considered worthy of either honor. But he replies: "You, Mr. Advocate, told your conscience that it was altogether legitimate to defend my questionable transactions professionally, because the law did not constitute you the judge of the merits of the case, because the law says every man is to be presumed to be innocent till convicted of guilt by the constituted tribunal, and because you were not to be supposed to have any opinion about my guilt or innocence. Now the constituted authorities have honorably acquitted me—at your advice! I claim, therefore, that you shall act out your own theory, and practically treat me as an honorable man."

We opine the honorable counselor would soon see through his own sophistry, and reply that those principles only applied to his civic treatment of him as a citizen; that his house and his daughter were his own; and that he was entitled, yea, solemnly bound, in disposing of them, to exercise the best lights of his private judgment.

Nothing can be so intimately personal and private, so exclusively between a man and his God, as his concern in the morality of his own acts. Since God holds every man immediately responsible for the way in which he deals with truth and right, whenever and in whatever capacity he deals with them, there can be no concern in which he is so much entitled and bound to decide for himself in the light of his own honest conscience. The lawyer is bound, therefore, to form his own independent opinion, in the fear of God, asking whether in assisting each applicant, he will be assisting wrong or falsehood. This preliminary question he ought to consider, not professionally, but personally and ethically. Let every man rest assured that God's claim over his moral creatures are absolutely inevitable. God will not be cheated of satisfaction to his own outraged law by the plea that the wrong was done professionally. When the lawyer himself is suffering the righteous judgment of his professional misdeeds, how will it fare with the man?

The highest duty which man owes to himself is to preserve and improve his own virtue. Our race is fallen, and the reason and conscience which are appointed for our inward guides are weakened and dimmed. But yet God places in our power a process of moral education by which they may be improved. The habit of acting rightly confirms their uncertain decisions, and a through rectitude of intention and candor help to clarify our mental vision. There is no lesson of experience clearer than this, that the habit of advocating what is not thoroughly believed to be right, perverts the judgment and obfuscates the conscience, until they become unreliable. Nothing is better known by sensible men than the fact that experienced lawyers, while they may be acute and plausible arguers, are unsafe judges concerning the practical affairs of life. They are listened to with interest, but without confidence. Their ingenious orations pass for almost nothing, while the stammering and brief remarks of some unsophisticated and unlearned farmer carry all the votes.

Fatal power: to bring the imperial principles of reason and conscience so under the dominion of self-interest and fictitious zeal. Now, it is a fearful thing to tamper thus with the faculties which are to regulate our moral existence, and decide our immortal state. It may not be done with impunity. Truth has her sanctities; and if she sees them dishonored, she will hide her vital beams from the eyes which delighted to see error dressed in her holy attributes, until the reprobate mind is given over to delusions, to believe lies.

We conclude, therefore, that the only moral theory of the legal profession is that which makes conscience preside over every official word and act in precisely the same mode as over the private, individual life. It does not appear that the virtuous man can consistently go one inch farther, in the advocacy of a client's cause, than his own honest private judgment decides he ought to go. "Whatever is more than these, cometh of evil." It may follow, that he who undertakes to practice law on this Christian theory will find that he has a narrow and arduous road along which to walk. But we should not lament, should Christian young men so conclude. Perhaps, then, the holy claims of the gospel ministry might command the hearts of some of them, who are now seduced by this attractive but dangerous profession.



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