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St. Mary's Law Journal





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The thesis of my article, “American Legal Ethics in an Age of Anxiety,” is that the historical development of American legal ethics was regularly accompanied by an anxiety within the profession. In general, I suggest the legal profession’s understanding of its ethical precepts has been molded and reshaped during periods of professional anxiety. The profession’s understanding of legal ethics changed dramatically during various crises in the 19th century, exemplified by the different approaches taken by David Hoffman in the mid-1830s, George Sharswood in the mid-1850s, and David Dudley Field in the early 1870s. In each case, however, the triggering event was a crisis found within the legal profession. Similarly, the profession changed dramatically during the 20th century, beginning with the ABA’s adoption of the Canons of Ethics in 1908. A crisis in the profession also arose during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when the ABA appeared ready to amend the Canons. What was unusual about this crisis of professionalism was that lawyers found an approach other than reforming the rules of ethics to reform the legal profession. The drafting of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct in the late 1970s and early 1980s represented a dramatic turn as the legal profession stumbled from actual economic and social threats to the profession’s status. Even during the legal profession’s golden age in the 1960s, when the legal profession found itself both economically stable and socially prominent, the ABA’s Code of Professional Responsibility, adopted in 1969, was warped by an anxiety that the profession was under economic siege. The American legal profession’s best chance to craft an understanding of the lawyer’s ethical precepts went by the wayside because lawyer’s were unable to look beyond economic self-interest, a consequence that has contributed to a moral drift within the American legal profession.

Recommended Citation

Michael S. Ariens, American Legal Ethics in an Age of Anxiety, 40 St. Mary’s L.J. 343 (2008).



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