A Utah Supreme Court justice warned University of Utah law graduates Saturday to beware of violating personal ethics in the name of the law profession.
Michael D. Zimmerman told the 124 class of '88 graduates that although they have acquired many necessary skills to practice law, they have not been taught how to reconcile their roles as lawyers with their roles as "ethical human beings.""It is important that you learn to think about legal problems analytically, to see all sides of the issue and recognize that whether something is legally possible is quite a different question from whether it is ethically proper."
Zimmerman said members of the law profession often use what he calls an "adversary system excuse," which frees lawyers from any moral responsibilities for their actions.
"This lack of moral accountability is grounded in theory on the claim that the adversary system itself is morally good, so those serving it can assume that if they fulfill their roles properly according to its rules, the system will produce moral results," Zimmerman said.
To illustrate his point, he told of a 1962 case in which a man named Spaulding was badly injured in an automobile accident and sued the driver of the car that hit him. The driver's lawyer had a doctor examine Spaulding, and the doctor discovered a life-threatening aneurysm caused by the accident.
Spaulding offered to settle the case for $6,500. The driver's lawyer realized that if Spaulding knew of the aneurysm, he would demand much more, so the case was settled without disclosing the existence of the aneurysm. Even after the case was consummated, the defense counsel never told Spaulding of the aneurysm.
The general position of the law profession, said Zimmerman, is that the driver's lawyer was not morally or professionally accountable for what might have happened later.
"I do not think you can legitimately take comfortable refuge behind the adversary system excuse to avoid the tough ethical issues you will face in practice," Zimmerman said. "You cannot avoid moral responsibility for the choices you make for yourself and your clients."
Zimmerman encouraged the graduates to be sensitive to all ethical implications of their actions, seek good role models and rely on their own good judgment. "There will be few easy answers, but you will be a better lawyer for making the effort to remain true to yourself," Zimmerman said.
University of Utah President Chase Peterson congratulated the 46 women and 78 men who received legal degrees and encouraged them to continue learning.
"In view of all you know, be acutely aware of what you don't know and be willing to admit it to yourself," Peterson said. "Consider the possibility that you will not be a better practitioner of the law than you are a human being."
Edward Spurgeon, dean of the college of law, thanked the class for contributions it has made to the program.
"Individually and collectively you've worked hard, accomplished a lot and contributed to the institution," Spurgeon said. "We are confident that you have the character and the educational foundation to become lawyers who can effectively serve the needs of our society well into the 21st century."
Two students, Stefan John and Blair P. Bremberg, were awarded masters of law degrees in energy law. Thomas Lund, a U. law professor, was given the Burlington Northern Foundation Faculty Achievement Award, a cash award intended to recognize excellence in teaching.