Journal of Leadership and the Law

Ethics and Professionalism

By Stephanie Murray

“Great men and women are not extraordinary people who do extraordinary things. They are ordinary people who do ordinary things with integrity.”
– Jayce O’Neal

Perhaps one of my most formative lessons in integrity and honesty was one I learned from my mother. As a young child, I, along with the accomplice who happened to be my brother, snuck out of Sears Department Store with a candy bar hidden in my pocket. My brother may have also left discreetly with a plastic pitchfork in tow. It was Halloween, after all. I do not recall exactly how old I was, possibly five or six, but what I do remember is the horrible feeling I had when my mom marched both me and my brother back into the store to report to the sales associate what we had done, and apologize. That early lesson in integrity has never left me and its significance still resonates as I develop and grow professionally. An important part of being a leader, and of being a professional, is acknowledging when you are wrong, fixing the error, and growing from the lesson.

The second significant lesson I learned about integrity and professionalism is one I learned from my father. Before beginning law school, I spent five years working as a Probation and Parole Officer. Life as an officer was stressful, and it was challenging to separate my career from my personal life. Many of the people I was trying to assist and rehabilitate made it difficult not to take things personally, especially when I was called more names as an adult than I had ever been as a child on the playground. Unfortunately, there were times when the pressure of work began to take an emotional toll on me. As an officer I can remember a specific time when I had worked with a probationer to get him into compliance with the conditions of his probation but he met every condition, every requirement, with unwavering resistance. It wasn’t that he could not comply, but that he chose not to. I felt that he had made it his mission to make my job impossible, and it was at this point that I began to take my job too personally. Ultimately, the probationer violated his probation. It took some time for the case to be heard, and I remember calling my father, frustrated that the probationer would not either come in for an office visit with me or schedule a home visit I could attend. I exclaimed to my father, “I just want him revoked!” And my father replied, “Well, honey, why? Has he hurt anyone while on probation? Has he committed any other crimes?” I realized at this point that the answer to those questions was no. And then my dad said, “You are taking it too personally. You need to take a step back and then decide what to do.” This is another lesson that has never left me. This lesson sticks with me through every decision I make. When I am frustrated, or unhappy with an outcome, or things aren’t going the way I want, I stop and ask myself, “Are you taking this too personally?”

Not taking things too personally is another hallmark of a good leader. However, even when a leader does take something too personally, he recognizes that he is doing so and understands that it is important to take a step back and remove himself from the situation. To be a great leader is to remain level-headed and to look at a situation from a place of openness, where there is no personal desire for a problem to be resolved in one way or another. Being a leader, being a professional, is seeking to resolve the problem, or the issue, in the best possible way, even if that way doesn’t align with one’s own personal desires. A great leader knows to get out of his own way and look to others to help when it is needed. Further, a great leader recognizes when he may be comprising their inner values to effectuate an outcome and will take measures to rectify the situation.

I recently had a conversation with a good friend about the “moral compass” with which we each live our lives. For example, some are taught at a very young age not to steal candy from a store, to apologize when someone’s feelings have been hurt, and to always do what is “right.” The issue, however, arises with those who either are not taught the same values and morals or choose not to live by them and must go out into the world and learn those lessons on their own. Sometimes the lesson is simple, and a slap on the hand suffices. Yet sometimes the lesson yields a strong consequence, whether it results in the reduction of a grade, expulsion from school, loss of a job, or even, loss of freedom. Whatever the lesson, it is our own moral compass that guides us through our decisions. Some are fortunate enough to have someone in life that can help calibrate their compass, but others are left looking around, lost, wondering when they started heading in the wrong direction.

As an aspiring attorney, I have experienced firsthand when people have to learn ethical lessons for the first time. Some of the people I will one day represent may have wandered in the wrong direction, and may have had a difficult time finding their way back. Other times, young and aspiring attorneys may have made a wrong decision that has led them away from their path, and their moral compass. It could be a small choice, maybe to help a classmate out by giving them the topic of a midterm that they haven’t yet taken, or maybe it’s a bigger choice, the kind of choice that keeps us up at night, wondering why we ever decided to make that decision in the first place.

Nicola Boothe-Perry, in her article, Enforcement of Law Schools’ Non-Academic Honor Codes:  A Necessary Step Towards Professionalism?, writes that “‘The campus is . . . a world apart from the public square . . . and [students] must abide by certain norms of conduct when they enter an academic community.’”1 Often this comes as quite a surprise to twenty-something year olds who may have never held a job in a professional atmosphere or who matriculate immediately from undergraduate school. Because the law school is the “grooming” period of a young, aspiring lawyer’s life before becoming an actual advocate, law schools are the very place in which law students should be taught how to act professionally, responsibly, and with the utmost integrity. The law school environment is the “first exposure to the appropriate standards necessary to preserve the spirit of the law and the profession.”2 Therefore, law schools carry the heavy burden of ensuring that law students not only develop attitudes and value systems reflective of integrity and professionalism, but they also have a responsibility to not only students but also to the community, and society, to provide the necessary training and guidance to guarantee that students conform to these standards.3

Law school is the gateway to the realm of law and justice, of truth and ethics, honesty and integrity, and the future is fraught with undesirable outcomes ranging from a case being thrown out of court, or a judge humiliating you in front of an entire courtroom, to a client being sent to prison for life, a malpractice suit, or possibly disbarment. It is because the work of lawyers has such a profound effect on society and the lives of so many individuals that it is critical that law schools teach and prepare aspiring attorneys to comply with the rules and regulations that govern a lawyer’s behavior. Boothe-Perry suggests that “one critical method in fulfilling this responsibility is through the enactment and enforcement of student honor codes. Awareness and conformance to rules and regulations governing the appropriate and acceptable scope of behavior for students pursuing law degrees will provide practice and reinforcement for professional behavior in subsequent practice.”4

During the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to work as a legal associate at the North Carolina State Bar. While many law students are familiar with the State Bar because it is the organization that determines whether or not a law student is qualified to be licensed as an attorney, many law students never get the opportunity to see the inner workings of the state agency that also monitors lawyers once they are licensed. During my employment, I investigated various reports of ethical violations against attorneys licensed in North Carolina. Through the course of my employment, I learned that a growing concern is over newly licensed attorneys’ handling of trust accounts. I spoke with counsel responsible for investigating these matters and they indicated that there were courses available to teach new attorneys how to properly manage and supervise trust accounts. I asked counsel why they felt that mismanagement of trust accounts was such an issue for new attorneys and counsel stated that they believed the mismanagement was due to the inexperience with managing and reconciling accounts, and understanding the rules of professional conduct.  I then asked counsel whether they felt this was due to lack of proper development in these important skills while the attorneys were law students. Counsel agreed that this was one part of the issue and had developed a course that he was bringing to various law schools to ensure that law students learned about trust accounts before they graduated and became licensed.

It was reassuring to see the state bar be proactive in addressing potential professional conduct violations before law students ever become licensed attorneys, but ultimately I was left wondering, why law students are not being properly educated on these types of issues in the first place. It seems to me that one of the most important aspects of being an attorney is becoming licensed, and also maintaining that licensure. If there is even the slightest possibility that a lawyer could lose their license due to an accounting error in which the attorney was never even informed of, on what other potential ethical issues are aspiring attorneys lacking knowledge? Sean Ravenel, in his article, The Contagion of Example: Attacking the Root of the Problem in Lawyer Professionalism, writes that “[t]he most significant problem in legal education today is the failure of law schools to require an exacting standard of professional conduct from law students, thereby denying them the opportunity to develop a working conceptual framework for professional conduct later in their careers.”5 So, how, then, should law schools ensure that students are taught the standards of professional conduct they are to abide by and provide those students with the opportunity to develop their own “working conceptual framework?” Part of the problem, suggests Ravenel, is that while law schools possess the necessary tools for building a framework of professionalism that can be transported into the whole of the legal community, these same law schools are not using those tools effectively.6 And so the question now becomes, how law schools can more effectively utilize the tools they have in order to build a framework of professionalism. One way in which law schools can prepare students for acquiring a high standard of professionalism and ethical behavior that is required of the legal profession is to provide students with the opportunity to enhance their awareness of professionalism and expose those students to real world ethical dilemmas present in both law school and in practice.7 Ravenel suggests that prior to orientation students should receive reading assignments aimed at providing insights on real-life ethical dilemmas that attorneys face daily and also having students complete an essay analyzing a particular ethical issue.8 Ravenel further suggests that law schools implement professionalism courses and training which Elon Law has successfully done. The Elon Law leadership and professionalism courses provide students with the opportunity to interact with clients and develop the professional skills needed for their future as attorneys. In their second year, law students work as a team to complete a final product to a client. Working collaboratively requires students to assign and delegate tasks, work together among differences, and discuss issues as they arise and determine how to resolve those issues.

Another important aspect however, of creating the foundation on which professionalism principles can be built, is to have an exacting standard set out by a code of conduct and professional responsibility. “Standards of conduct are [so] important and vital because they form the habits of life.9 These standards, or codes, are what hold each and every student accountable for their conduct. And while most, if not all, law schools have student codes of conduct, and most an honor code, students are rarely taught what conduct specifically violates those codes and are further unaware of the consequences of violating such codes. This is not to say, however, that students should not be held to a high standard of conduct because of confusion or lack of awareness. It is the student’s responsibility to gain clarification on any confusion or questions raised by the codes. Further, there should be open and meaningful dialogue amongst students and faculty members discussing these confusions and analyzing various hypotheticals in order to delve deeper into why a specific type of conduct violates the code of ethics or professionalism.

The experience I gained working with the North Carolina State Bar and serving as Student Representative and Chair of the Honor Council, combined with the research I have conducted on how law schools address professional and ethical conduct, have led me to determine that while law schools, and the legal profession as a whole, have enacted courses and training on developing and growing professional behavior, there are still areas that need improvement. These areas, the ethical and moral decision-making areas, are the areas in which education and training can improve conduct, but ultimately, to calibrate ones moral compass, there needs to be accountability.  

In closing I ask you to consider your own moral compass. Is your conduct in alignment with what is right ethically? Have you taken the time to consider whether your compass needs calibrating, whether you, like any other human, has faltered from the code of conduct you’ve placed on yourself? When you assess your values, do you find that you have upheld them? And if your answer is “no” to any of these questions, I ask, what can you do to rebuild your ethical and professional framework or re-lay the foundation on which to begin anew?


1.) Nicola A. Boothe-Perry, Enforcement of Law Schools’ Non-Academic Honor Codes:  A Necessary Step Towards Professionalism?, 89 Neb. L. Rev. 634, 635 (2011) (quoting Christian Legal Soc’y v. Martinez, 130 S. Ct. 2971, 2997 (2010) (Stevens, J., concurring)).
2.) Id. at 636.
3.) Id.
4.) Id.
5.) Sean Ravenel, The Contagion Of Example: Attacking The Root Of The Problem In Lawyer Professionalism, The Federal Lawyer, Nov/Dec 2002, Vol. 49, #10, Page 31.
6.) Id.
7.) Id.
8.) Id.
9.) Id. (emphasis added) (citing to Henry Wayans Jessup, The Professional Ideals of the Lawyer: A Study of Legal Ethics (G.A. Jennings Co. 1925) (quoting Elihu Root)).