“I didn’t know lawyers had ethics!”: How I’m trying to avoid ending up like Marshall Eriksen

I would attempt to explain why I was trying to locate my ethical beliefs by reading article, after report, after court indictment last term, and the person usually responded with:

I didn’t know lawyers had ethics!”…..ha, ha, HA. I’m glad my inner moral struggle is amusing to you.

The extra-curricular reading began last term something happened that shifted my moral compass and changed my path in life. And it happened in a classroom.

I’ve mentioned before on Terry that I hope to move on to law school after UBC and practice international law. Ever since primary school when I was first introduced to the French Revolution I’ve been interested in war and conflict; why do people fight? Why do people rebel? What are the underlying causes? How is violence used and how does it transform that society? This “fascination” with conflict continued, and after a couple fairly transformative trips to the Philippines later in life, I decided that what mattered to me most was providing justice (in the very traditional, retributive sense) to those who could not pursue it themselves. After much research, soul-searching and a year at University I believed my most-perfect-dream-job-ever would be as a Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

“The ICC. Yeah….. Gonna get me some bad guys! Gonna end impunity! I mean, what’s more badass than going after war criminals, right?”

I was aware of the arguments against the ICC: that it was a westernized court that unfairly targeted African conflicts. And I agreed, but I also believed that as Prosecutor (look at that, I apparently already have the job!) I would work to overcome political barriers and self-interest in a more ethical pursuit of all war criminals.

Then I had 3 interactions with 3 life changing professors that, like magnets to my internal moral compass, completely threw me off my pre-designated track.

The young, ethical Marshall: Using the law to protect environmental policies

The young Marshall Eriksen. Ready to use the law in protecting the environment. (Image courtesy of CBS)

Corporate Marshall, looking more like Donald Trump than David Suzuki. (Image courtesy of CBS)

It started with a seminar I took last term in which our prof would organize incredible speakers to come in and share their research after we had read some of their work. The article I read for class on October 14th blew me away. I became very upset. I read it again, and again. And again. The bearings in my moral compass shifted.

The article described the story of Dominic Ongwen, one of the top 5 LRA Commanders indicted by the ICC. Abducted at the age of ten, Dominic lived his entire life in the Bush fighting for the LRA; he was trained to fight and his very survival depended on how well he did so. But none of this was taken into account when the ICC released his sealed arrest warrant in 2005. I vividly remember reading in the article:

“Ongwen is the first known person to be charged with the war crimes of which he is also a victim.”

Without a doubt Ongwen was a perpetrator, but he was also a victim. And I had absolutely no clue as to how the mechanism in which I so much believed in, the law, would rectify this.

I began to read fervently. Ridiculously long readings on debates about how the ICC pursued justice, how it was affecting Ugandans and what people were saying about Ongwen. I read the Rome Statute (which I should say is NOT an easy nor enjoyable task but I felt it was necessary).  I was literally in a moral fervor. I was panicked. The ethics I had believed in for so long seemed to be completely incapable of answering the questions I had.

So like any overzealous and clueless student, I went to my prof’s office hours. I felt like since this had happened in his seminar he owed me some type of guidance, right? Luckily, I think he felt the same way. He encouraged me to continue reading, to try to pin point my interest, and to possibly pursue a directed study  (he also offered me some reassurance that asking all these questions was a good thing and I no longer felt like a crazy person).

I then went to another Prof, who three times a week would introduce me to the terrifying world of “Ethics in Global Politics”. I felt an ethics prof must have some sense of what I was going through, or at least know how to handle the crazy undergrad that no longer felt like she had a career goal. I was right, he encouraged me to situate my ethical standpoint by writing my term paper on the ethical pursuit of justice in the case of Ongwen.

Man, did that paper ever change my life. Not only did it give me a solid footing in the ICC and the Ugandan conflict, but it also allowed me to explore how I really felt about the situation. I was no longer afraid of leaving law school and being thrown into a situation where I had no idea how to ethically pursue justice. In writing this paper I had to ask myself difficult questions, like what did I believe justice should do? Who should benefit from it? How has it failed us in the past? And as I asked myself these questions I began to develop my own ethical framework by learning what I believed in and was comfortable with.

I also now had the support of the professor who was really responsible for all of this. At the encouragement of my seminar prof, I went to visit her to discuss how I felt about her work with Ongwen and that I was interested in further researching, but I had no idea how. I had discovered that narrowing my focus for a directed study was impossible at this point, there was still so much of “the basics” I wanted to learn in the field. Lucky for me, she invited me to take her grad seminar in the winter on transitional justice and I’ve been able to gain knowledge that I just wouldn’t get in a formal legal education.  Again, my interests overlapped when just last week in this seminar we were discussing research methodologies in spaces of violence, which led right into ethics.

We began talking about whose ethics you follow when in the field: maybe your institutional, disciplinary or professional ethical framework. But when, in the midst of corporate manuals and research grant forms, do you develop your own? As we began to discuss this, we all realized that undergrad, masters or PhD programs really don’t leave room for you to do this. You’re expected to complete course work at a high standard, but your education is not meant to equip you with your ethical guidelines so we end up borrowing from everywhere else. Really, if I hadn’t had the bald luck of interacting with these three professors I might have still been skipping off to the ICC, Ongwen’s arrest warrant in hand.

Many of you have heard of the recent scandal regarding Libya’s President Ghaddafi and the money his son donated to the London School of Economics (LSE). It was interesting to read that in the LSE governing council meeting in October 2009 only one council member protested the acceptance of the donation, arguing it would taint LSE’s reputation as an enlightened institution. The rest of the council members balked, and the £1.5 million donation from Saif Gaddafi was accepted.

£1.5 million from the son of an oppressive dictator.

Do you think that if each individual had been pulled into a separate room and asked if they were to accept the money, they would have said the same thing? Whose ethics do you think they were following in allowing the money to be donated?

It seems a lot of the justification has come from complaints that underfunding in British universities has forced higher education institutions “to turn a blind eye to the skeletons in the cupboard of donors like Saif Ghaddafi”. Others claim former Prime Minister Tony Blair (oh, how the mighty have fallen) played a roll, as former LSE director stated, “I wish I hadn’t done it now, but I was asked by the Government.”

Scary to think that the accomplished individuals sitting on the governing council of a prestigious UK school seem to still not have had their ethics straight. Even scarier to think, “what if that turns out to be me? What if I am so conflicted with money, prestige and power that I abandon my carefully constructed ethical framework that I so valiantly pursued in my undergrad and wind up announcing my resignation at a very sad looking press conference!? No0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0!!!!!!”

If anyone watches ‘How I Met Your Mother’, you’ll know this is exactly what happened to Marshall. After promising himself that he wouldn’t sell out after law school he gives in to the glitz of the cut throat corporate firm, and represents an amusement park with questionable safety standards.

This post is not meant to assert that one pursuit of justice, or ethics, is right or wrong. My view point most probably contrasts with yours, and there is certainly nothing wrong with pursuing a corporate law career (I’m talking to you NB, knock ’em dead!). We can all agree that personal and professional ethics change over time, but how do you avoid the pitfalls like the ones the LSE and Marshall fell right into: pursuing goals and guidelines that were never your own?

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2 Responses to ““I didn’t know lawyers had ethics!”: How I’m trying to avoid ending up like Marshall Eriksen”

  1. Jody

    Great post Elysa! It seems to be that defining ones own ethical framework must be a lifelong challenge that changes and morphs as we face new situations (like reading the article about Ongwen). I think the most important thing is that we’re always taking a step back to ask ourselves how WE feel about every situation and trying to understand and validate the underlying reasons for our beliefs.

  2. Elysa Hogg

    I totally agree Jody- I think a major thing has been identifying the obstacles that prevent that type of reflection from occurring. They’re different for everyone but many don’t realize what they are until it’s too late.

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