Morality of the Legal Profession

“THE prominent influence which lawyers exert in the community makes it a question of vital interest what are the ethical principles upon which the profession habitually regulate the performance of their professional duties. Their social standing is usually that of leaders in every society. As a class, they are almost uniformly men of education, and their studies of the science of the law, which is a great moral science, with their converse with all conditions of men, and all sorts of secular transactions, give them an intelligence and knowledge of the human heart which cannot but make them leaders of opinion. It is from this class that the most of our legislators and rulers, and all our judicial officers, must be taken. They are the agents by whose hands are managed nearly all the complicated transactions which involve secular rights, and interest the thoughts and moral judgements of men most warmly. But more; they are the stated and official expounders of those rights, and not the mere protectors of the possessions or material values about which our rights are concerned. In every district, town or county of our land, we may say with virtual accuracy, monthly, or yet more frequent, schools are held in which the ethical doctrines governing man’s conduct to his fellow man are publicly and orally taught to the whole body of the citizens, with accessory circumstances, giving the liveliest possible interest, vividness and pungency to the exposition. Of these schools the lawyers are the teachers. Their lessons are presented, not in the abstract, like so many heard from the pulpit, but in the concrete, exemplified in cases which arouse the whole community to a living interest. Their lessons are endlessly varied, touching every human right and duty summed up in the second table of the law. They are usually intensely practical, and thus admit of an immediate and easy application. They are always delivered with animation, and often with an impressive eloquence. It is, therefore, obvious that this profession must have fearful influence in forming the moral opinions of the community. The concern which the country has in their professional integrity, and in their righteous and truthful exercise of these vast powers, is analogous to that which the church has in the orthodoxy of her ministers. Nor are these influences of the legal profession limited to things secular; for the domains of morals and religion so intermingle that the moral condition of a people, as to the duties of righteousness between, man and man, greatly influences their state towards God. It may well be doubted whether an acute and unprincipled bar does not do more to corrupt and ruin many communities than the pulpit does to sanctify and save them. These things at once justify the introduction of the topic into these discussions, and challenge the attention of Christian lawyers and readers to its great importance.”

Discussions, Vol 3, R.L. Dabney