How to be “good” in a profession with some not so great choices?

Having just been admitted to law school, I was very excited to attend the panel discussion consisting of Duke Law professors, Jeff Powell, Christopher Schroeder, Barak Richman, Sean Andrussier, Darrell Miller, and former corporate restructuring attorney Meredith Edelman “So you want to be a (good) attorney” hosted by the Arete initiative.   After witnessing what I felt to be grave injustices, stemming from the law, during my internship at the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, this past summer, one of the most pressing questions I had was: how can I lead an ethical life if I am forced to work within an unethical context? What should I do if the rule of law conflicts with my own moral compass? When the moderator posed this very question to the panelists, I eagerly anticipated the insights some of the foremost legal scholars in the nation had to share.

I think that the lack of a clear-cut answer given by the panelists conveyed the enormous difficulty in answering this question.  Indeed, as Edelman poignantly noted, “no one thinks that the law is perfect and that is the point of it.”  Professor Richman described this dilemma as a battle between what he referred to as “internal and external integrity.”  He stated that internal integrity refers to upholding the rule of law while external integrity refers to one’s moral compass or own code of ethics.  Richman explained that an attorney is often “happiest when their personal values align with the values dictated under the law.”  I think that Professor Miller’s response, during which he challenged the audience to think about whether attorney-client privilege prevails over disclosing a dangerous client to the authorities, illustrates a contention between internal and external integrity.  After contemplating the implications of Miller’s example, I thought about the best course of action to take in a similar quandary.  Should an attorney represent a client, who they know is guilty of a particularly heinous crime, such as homicide, with the best possible defense? Or, should the attorney decline to offer their services?  Does one’s belief in the Sixth Amendment right to counsel or one’s moral perversion to possibly exonerating a murderer prevail?

Throughout the discussion, I wondered how or if the research interests, personal experiences, and racial or gender identity of the panelists helped to shape the responses they offered and how it affects their definition of “good.”  Furthermore, I wondered how the panelists would have responded to the hypothetical conundrum above.  Leaving with even more questions than I had originally entered with, I realized the integral role my own definition of “good” will play in my interpretation of the law and professional conduct as an attorney.