Law Students Test the Slipperiness of Ethical Slopes in New Class

Students Weigh Profits Versus Reputation in Competitive Classroom Game
Adjunct professor Ben Sachs probes students' ethical decisions in his class.

Adjunct professor Ben Sachs probes students' ethical decisions in his class, Professional Responsibility.

March 23, 2017

A law firm is considering taking on new clients. They've been asked to represent two officers accused in a high-profile police brutality case. The firm is also considering taking on the police benevolence association in their area — a potential $10 million contract.

Which, if either, should they work for? Can they accept both clients?

Students taking a novel Professional Responsibility course at the University of Virginia School of Law are role-playing how they would respond to potential ethical challenges buried within everyday business decisions.

With any misstep, they could tank their law firm and torpedo their careers.

"With these scenarios, students get a feel for why ethics rules are harder to apply than they might think, and for the practical trade-offs involved," said adjunct professor Ben Sachs of the two-credit class, which explores the creation and termination of the attorney-client relationship, the scope of representation, conflicts of interests, confidentiality and the attorney's ethical obligations during litigation.

Students discuss their positions.Students hash out their positions.

Sachs, a 2009 graduate of the Law School, is vice president and general counsel at a D.C.-based tech company. He also teaches the UVA Law course Negotiation.

Sachs calls the classroom competition he devised "Occupational Hazard." (He uses the universal stick-figure symbol for "slip and fall" as the logo.) He has broken the class into 16 small groups of four-to-five students, and they comprise the make-believe law firms that are deciding what their next moves will be.

Working on teams with names such as "Blurred Lines" and "Better Call Saul," students face dilemmas. How they handle the challenges affects their firm’s ethics score, reputation rating and cumulative billings. Maximizing all three at once is not always possible.

"But there is another question I ask them," Sachs said. "Can you sleep at night with your decisions?"

While Professional Responsibility has long been taught at the Law School, Sachs' approach is unconventional. He teaches from a variation of the flipped model — in which there are few traditional lectures; students do all their reading and prep work on core knowledge before the class meets and take short in-class assessments designed to mimic the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. By studying in advance the black-letter ethics rules that they'll need to know for professional certification, students are better able to spend the rest of class time exploring the gray areas. The class satisfies the school's professional ethics course requirement.

In the police-clients scenario, the student firms had different reasons for deciding which client to accept.

"We thought rejection of all parties would boost our reputation points because the general consensus of the nation seems to be anti-police," one student said.

"So you rejected the case because defending police officers in a brutality action might not look great for you in the papers?" Sachs asked.

"Exactly," she said.

Another student was concerned that conflicts might arise later if the two policing-related parties were at odds in court. With the benevolence association's $10 million hanging over their heads, "They have us on retainer, [so] they can get rid of us at any moment," he said.

Sachs said it has been interesting to see how seriously students take the hypothetical billings and fictional threats to their reputations.

"Even though it's a fictitious problem, students still find those competitive forces pushing them to make certain decisions," he said. "Often they will make decisions they feel are ethically permissible and are later surprised to learn they crossed an ethical line."

To add realism, his game takes into account subjectivity: "Sometimes I introduce a bit of randomness. Not every court is going to review an ethics situation the same way."

In those instances, Sachs said, he simply rolls the dice to determine the outcome.

 

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