Unethical Obedience by Subordinate Attorneys: Lessons from Social Psychology

28 Pages Posted: 2 May 2008 Last revised: 13 Jun 2008


This Article explores the lessons that we can learn from social psychology regarding a lawyer's willingness to comply with authority figures, such as senior partners or deep-pocketed clients, when they make unlawful or unethical demands. The Article reviews some of the basic literature in social psychology regarding conformity and obedience, much of which emphasizes the importance of context as a primary factor in predicting people's behavior. The Article then contends that lawyers frequently find themselves in the kinds of contexts that produce high levels of conformity and obedience and low levels of resistance to illegal or unethical instructions. The result is that subordinate lawyers will find it difficult to resist a superior's commands in circumstances that should produce forceful dissent. Finally, the Article proposes several changes to existing law in light of these insights, including giving lawyers the benefit of whistleblower protection, strengthening a lawyer's duty to report the misconduct of other lawyers, and enhancing a subordinate lawyer's responsibilities upon receiving arguably unethical instructions from superiors.

Suggested Citation

Perlman, Andrew, Unethical Obedience by Subordinate Attorneys: Lessons from Social Psychology. Hofstra Law Review, Vol. 36, p. 451, 2007, Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 08-15, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1127685

Andrew Perlman (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States
(617) 573-8777 (Phone)

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