Ethics: More than just staying out of trouble
Inclusion and ethics have the potential to change the world (and legal profession), CLE presenter says
Stuart Teicher says he’s loved ethics since he took a class on professional responsibility in law school. Although the class didn’t expressly focus on behaving ethically as a legal professional, Teicher said it resonated with him from that point forward.
“Something about how the rules govern lawyer behavior and the combination of setting the boundaries and talking about proper behavior just fascinates me,” he said.
The self-named “CLE Performer” and legal educator has been teaching ethics law and writing instruction since 2009, after practicing as a solo and small firm lawyer for more than two decades. Teicher teaches seminars and webinars such as CLE Express and Ethics Express; provides ethics training to law firms and legal departments; and presents at conferences such as the upcoming Solo and Small Firm Conference and law firm events.
From his first year teaching and attending the Association for Continuing Legal Education (ACLEA) onward, Teicher said he knew teaching ethics “is what I should be doing.”
“When we teach professional responsibility in law school, we don’t teach ethics,” he said. “The rules are only part of professional responsibility. There’s the ethics portion, which sets the boundaries of our behavior, but there are also concepts of professionalism, which is how we’re supposed to aspire higher.”
Lawyers use the concepts of ethical responsibility every day regardless of practice area, he said.
“Every lawyer, every day, is going to deal with some sort of behavioral or professional issue,” he said. “And because it’s such an important part of every practice every single day, it also allows us to be the best at what we do. It’s not just a boundary of, ‘How do we stay out of trouble?’”
Although Teicher teaches all areas of practice, he said he feels his programs resonate particularly well with solo and small firm lawyers.
“Ethics and professional rules of conduct affect small firm lawyers more than large firm lawyers because they’re on their own,” he said. “Big-size law firms have a support system and resources to use when there are issues, whereas the solo and small firm lawyers — and I was solo and small firm for a long time — you’re on your own.”
Between one-on-one communication with clients, office staff supervision, increased direct responsibilities, and fewer resources to turn to when ethical questions arise, solo lawyers face a different set of issues than professionals at large law firms Teicher said.
“I was the lawyer who was up to my nose in work early in my career, and you feel as though sometimes you’re living on the edge of an ethics breach your entire career,” he said. “And I think because I could identify with what they’re going through, it drives me to try to help them get through that.”
Teicher even started a “Lawyer Survival Center,” a Facebook page that he created to give lawyers direction on how to help protect them from malpractice their practice. He also records a podcast called, “Ethics is Cool” to provide additional resources for lawyers who are struggling to find assistance.
One of his most recent programs, “What The Song of the Century Teaches About Inclusion in the Law,” strives to help lawyers foster inclusion and belonging in their practice. Although programs focusing on diversity have become commonplace when teaching ethics programs, Teicher believes that inclusion and elimination of bias are a step beyond diversity.
“Diversity is about having a diverse group of individuals who are going to be a part of the practice,” he said. “But inclusion and belonging are about retaining those individuals, giving them access to opportunities and resources, and bringing them up the ladder into leadership positions.”
“What The Song of the Century Teaches About Inclusion in the Law” discusses the relevance the 1939 song, “Strange Fruit,” has to lawyers in the 21st century fight for inclusion and belonging. The song, originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol in 1937, was recorded by Billie Holiday to protest the lynching of Black Americans around the turn of the century. Although protest music existed before “Strange Fruit,” the song was revolutionary due to its open rebellion against racism and violence.
The song was so moving that it eventually became known as the “Song of The Century.”
“What I find so interesting about it is that there are so many different things that had to happen for that song to become what it is,” Teicher said. “There had to be collaboration, there had to be individual accountability, there had to be daring people who were willing to take risks. “All those concepts that helped the song become what it is are relevant to lawyers in our fight for inclusion and belonging.”
Most recently, Teicher traveled to the Mississippi Delta, where he filmed his ethics program, “What the Mississippi Delta Teaches About Bias in the Legal Profession.” The Mississippi Delta is the northwest portion of Mississippi (along with sections of Louisiana and Arkansas) with distinctive racial and cultural history.
In his research to connect the history of the Delta with lawyer ethics, he found that people leave Mississippi for the same reasons that minority lawyers leave law firms – they don’t have access to opportunity and resources that are vital when building relationships. “And when you don’t have access to opportunity and resources, people leave,” he said.
Teicher wants more inclusion programs to focus enough on love, friendships, and building relationships.
“When you look at the need for active mentors, you look at the need for sponsorship,” he said. “How does that happen? It happens when you as a lawyer care individually enough about someone else to go out of your way to give them access to opportunities and resources. You can’t fake inclusion. You’ve got to have that individual drive to want it to happen.”
Ultimately, Teicher said, it’s about individual lawyers being accountable for change and coming together to create the community they want to see in the world.
“That’s why I like teaching about inclusion and belonging,” he said. “It’s about getting better, being better, and moving forward and creating relationships.”
Register for Teicher’s CLE programs individually online at MoBarCLE.org, or sign up for Ethics Express to fulfill all your ethics and elimination of bias minimum continuing legal education requirements.