A new clinic on professional ethics at the Yale Law School is the first of its kind in the nation.
The Ethics Bureau at Yale, started by Law School lecturer Lawrence Fox, advises lawyers on how to proceed when faced with violations of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct — a set of professional standards issued by the American Bar Association — and other ethical dilemmas. Clinic members interviewed said their work is crucial because there is a dearth of courses at Yale Law, and in law schools across the nation, dealing with professional ethics.
“For years I’ve recognized that there was an unmet need for professional responsibility advice for lawyers who cannot afford it, or whose clients can’t afford it,” said Fox, a former chairman of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility.
Clinic member Ramya Kasturi LAW ’12 said the issues the clinic addresses arise frequently in everyday practice, and include problems such as ineffective counsel and conflicts of interest. The former could occur if a lawyer broke confidentiality, while the latter could arise if a lawyer were representing two clients and one wanted to testify against the other, Kasturi said.
Ethical issues plague legal practices nationwide, Fox said, citing the fact that the clinic is currently working on cases from Texas and Pennsylvania to Georgia and Louisiana, among others. Although he said he could not discuss specific cases in detail because of confidentiality issues, Fox said the clinic is already dealing with a conflict of interest case in a Capital Defender Office, as well as seeking to have a prosecutor disqualified from prosecuting a defendant on retrial because of misconduct in the first trial. Prosecutorial misconduct occurs when prosecutors act unfairly by withholding evidence or permitting false testimony.
Faced with an ethical dilemma to which they do not know the answer, some lawyers hire an outside adviser, clinic member Stephanie Turner LAW ’12 said, but she added that others cannot afford to do so. Most of the clinic’s clients are lawyers working pro bono for clients who cannot pay, such as public defenders who have been accused of ineffective assistance of counsel while representing capital defendants, she said.
Fox said he hopes the clinic will be a permanent fixture at Yale — though this depends on sustained student interest and funding — and inspire other law schools to create similar institutions. He added that students have shown substantial interest in working at the clinic, although he could only accept seven participants.
“The clinic is a great opportunity for students to understand the importance of professional responsibility to their careers as lawyers and to give them practical experience dealing with the really serious issues that arise every day in practice,” Fox said.
Turner agreed that the clinic is important for Yale Law students because there are very few courses in legal ethics, but to graduate they must fulfill a “professional responsibility” requirement by taking clinics or other related courses. Fox’s clinic is putting ethics in the spotlight, she said, which benefits students in the long run.
According to the Yale Law website, nearly 80 percent of Yale Law students participate in at least one of the more than 20 clinics that do pro bono work and run community-oriented projects out of the school.