A Behavioral Theory of Legal Ethics

33 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2013 Last revised: 11 Jan 2017

Date Written: 2015


Imagine a lawyer who discovers that a client has several smoking gun documents that will doom the client’s case if produced in discovery. Also assume the client tells the lawyer to use all lawful methods to avoid producing the information. Some legal ethicists argue that the lawyer should comply with the client’s instruction and pursue every permissible tactic, i.e., go right up to the line but not cross it. Critics of this so-called “dominant view” suggest that the lawyer should take into account other considerations, such as the interests of justice or morality.

One important practical problem with these competing prescriptions is that they do not help lawyers avoid unethical conduct. For example, even though the dominant view says that lawyers should protect the potentially discoverable documents only to the extent permissible under the law, lawyers who claim to be following the dominant view often cross the line. Similarly, prosecutors who are committed to the pursuit of justice regularly fail to comply with their constitutional obligations to disclose material exculpatory information to defense counsel. These failures raise an important question: why do lawyers who subjectively believe they are complying with prevailing theories of legal ethics — whether the dominant view or its alternatives — fail to apply the theories in the manner scholars intend?

This article suggests that the answer lies in social psychology. A vast body of research reveals that situational factors, such as placing a lawyer in a partisan role, can result in behavior that is inconsistent with conventional ethics theories. This article suggests that legal ethicists can develop more accurate and useful theories by accounting for the ways in which partisanship distorts objectivity, just as behavioral economists have drawn on social psychology to develop more accurate and useful understandings of economics.

Keywords: legal ethics, professional responsibility, behavioral science, social psychology

Suggested Citation

Perlman, Andrew, A Behavioral Theory of Legal Ethics (2015). Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 90. p. 1639, 2015, Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 13-31, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2320605 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2320605

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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