Character and fitness?

This is my part of a discussion on my Legal Ethics site about the below-linked story. Other commenters had identified The Market as effecting the appropriate course of action as to this hopeful lawyer’s career.

Linked from Above the Law: Michigan student prostitutes herself to pay tuition.

Actually, I disagree that “the market” will necessarily phase out people not fit to pass the bar, and strongly believe that ethics are real, not merely a professional conceit. The reason organizations like the bar exist is to solve a collective action problem. Transaction costs are high for potential clients and employers to investigate someone’s ethical (as opposed to merely legal, i.e. facing actual charges) background. I’m a pretty staunch libertarian, but I think licensing lawyers to advocate for non-legally-educated clients is one instance where a centralized filtering board is pretty critical.

I too saw this story as it panned out, and read the student’s email to her law school community explaining that she faced depression and realized that her actions were wrong, but saw no other option to pay for school. While I appreciate that financial helplessness can seem hopeless, I don’t think this excuses her behavior. Indeed, Marxists and Randians alike may agree that prostitution is a victimless crime — and while I don’t completely agree, I don’t think it’s the prostitution that should preclude this woman from becoming a lawyer. It’s her willingness to engage in behavior she admits she felt was inappropriate, in response to her depression and feelings of hopelessness. I wouldn’t necessarily defend her choice to sell herself, but I would strongly defend the bar’s decision not to permit her to act as someone else’s advocate.

Moral turpitude requires both personal and professional ethics. Someone willing to compromise in one aspect of their life will inevitably violate the same principles in other aspects. Even if this student thought she wasn’t hurting anyone with her decision, she did admit that she knew it was wrong and proceeded anyway. She was willing to compromise her principles to obtain some result. It’s unlikely that someone willing to compromise their principles when it hurts themselves will stand stronger when it’s someone else on the line. The key here is that she admitted she knowingly committed an act she felt was inappropriate. Being a lawyer requires people to avoid knowingly violating principles and also to go above and beyond to uphold a special duty to your client. This woman could not satisfy the first requirement. It’s unlikely that she will have the turpitude to go above and beyond as the profession will require.


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