Of silos, isolation and legal ethics

Lawyers are notoriously independent. Ordinarily they do not explain what they are doing unless they need help and realize it. They focus on achieving short and long term objectives. In short, they want to “get things done.” Taking the time to explain what one has done and what one plans on doing do not naturally fall into the category of getting things done. One can see what the lawyer’s silo is made of: result oriented focus plus a certain impatience. The silo can have other components such as a desire for privacy: not wanting to take the risk of exposing oneself to disapproval or “constructive criticism” from others in the firm which at a minimum can slow things down or create other issues to address on the way to achieving the desired result. At worst it can lead to loss of or sharing of control over the matter. Lawyers love control.

The silo effect is a major obstacle in seeing much less fulfilling one’s ethical obligations. Legal ethics is all about perspective and objectivity. It requires the lawyer to see, understand, take into account and make reasonable judgments about professional obligations other than those necessary to “get things done.” Legal ethics require lawyers to overcome the silo effect.

Wherever there is a lawyer there is a silo, or at least the risk of one. The lawyer operates feverishly inside the silo. Legal ethics need more air, more sunshine, more nutrients than can be found in any lawyer-silo.

Most lawyers, from sole practitioners to lawyers in the largest firms, practice law alone. When they practice “together” there is usually a chain of command with orders given and followed inside the silo.

The solution is not to bring legal ethics into the silo. The solution is to go outside the silo. It is almost impossible – certainly it is difficult and risky – to try to identify and address one’s ethical obligations alone. One needs the help of someone who is (a) a good listener, (b) who has experience with legal ethics, (c) who is outside the silo and (d) who is free in every sense to give independent, professional advice with the understanding that the purpose is not, generally, for the counselor to tell the lawyer what to do, but rather to help the lawyer exercise independent professional judgment.

With that kind of help, one can overcome the burden and myopia of professional isolation. One way of thinking about legal ethics is to think of it as a requirement that one belong to, respect and participate in a community. Maybe opportunity is a better word than requirement, although a requirement there surely is.

More on this topic another time.