Beyond Cardboard Lawyers in Legal Ethics

19 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2012 Last revised: 26 Jun 2012

See all articles by Eli Wald

Eli Wald

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Russell G. Pearce

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: June 11, 2012


In his thought-provoking book, Lawyers and Fidelity to the Law, Bradley Wendel offers an understanding of the lawyer’s role grounded in political philosophy as an alternative to the contrasting perspectives of the neutral partisan and the morally responsible lawyer. Wendel explains that law provides a “coordinating function” that allows “citizens to cooperate on common undertakings” and “makes stability, coexistence, and cooperation possible in a pluralistic society.” In their role as “political officials,” lawyers make the legal system work when they show fidelity to law by zealously assisting clients in pursuing their legal entitlements, but not their interests as Holmesian bad men.

Fidelity has generated great interest and many of the leading thinkers in the field have engaged with its insights. Some commentators question Wendel’s great faith in the law and obedience to it. Others challenge his commitment to fidelity to the law to the exclusion of common morality. While we share some of these debates regarding whether the law warrants the kind of fidelity Wendel envisions, we focus in this review on Fidelity’s conception not of law but of lawyers.

While Wendel makes an important contribution to the field of legal ethics, his theory does not fully address either the relational reality of lawyers’ work or the contrary – and dominant – belief that lawyers and clients are, and are best understood as, atomistic individuals who are autonomous actors. We argue that lawyers who understand both their clients and themselves as autonomously self-interested actors are likely to construe clients’ entitlements broadly, and consequently in good-faith collapse the view of fidelity into the “standard conception” of the lawyer as a neutral partisan which Wendel seeks to replace. Furthermore, in instances in which the law (and fidelity to it) runs out, such as when the law would permit a client to pursue alternative courses of conduct, fidelity to the law is disappointedly agnostic and silent, leaving practicing lawyers with little guidance as to how to counsel and represent their clients. Lawyers are therefore likely to fill this gap with guidance from the dominant culture of autonomous self-interest. Accordingly, a new perspective on lawyers’ role that would bridge the gap between the reality of lawyers’ work and the dominant culture of autonomous self-interest would need to offer a more comprehensive account of lawyers and clients as relational actors.

Suggested Citation

Wald, Eli and Pearce, Russell G., Beyond Cardboard Lawyers in Legal Ethics (June 11, 2012). Legal Ethics, Forthcoming, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2082298, U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper, No. 12-20, Available at SSRN:

Eli Wald

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States


Russell G. Pearce (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States
212-636-6834 (Phone)
212-636-6899 (Fax)

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