Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

Harvard Law School

"During my first semester of teaching, Dennis Thompson discussed his newly inaugurated Program in Ethics and the Professions with HLS faculty who were teaching or writing about legal ethics. To me the idea of creating an intellectual community of diverse scholars interested in the structure, operation, and ideology of various professions was both exciting and daunting and, if successful, could literally revolutionize the way those scholars taught and wrote about these issues. But would there be sufficient commonality of interest, method, or orientation to sustain the kind of conversation necessary to make such a transformative enterprise viable? Quite frankly, some of us were skeptical. I decided to see for myself..."

David Wilkins, from Report on the Ethics Fellowship Year 1989-90


The study of ethical issues in the theory and practice of law has become a central strategic focus at Harvard Law School (HLS). The Program on the Legal Profession (PLP) is the driving force behind HLS initiatives that address contemporary challenges at the intersection of law and society, including globalization, advances in technology and science, human and civil rights, workplace diversity, corporate misconduct, and the regulation of professionals in their own work. Faculty and curriculum development, research, and innovative outreach are key elements in the Program's approach to understanding the structures and norms of the legal profession as they affect students, practitioners, and the general public.

The PLP is directed by the Lester Kissel Professor of Law David B. Wilkins, one of a number of HLS scholars who are affiliated with the Center for Ethics. Wilkins, who began his association with the Center as a Faculty Fellow in 1989 and serves as a Faculty Associate, credits the Center with helping the Law School to engage in a sustained and scholarly way with ethical aspects of the legal profession. Other Law School faculty who are affiliated with the Center include Einer Elhauge, Richard Fallon, Charles Fried, Andrew Kaufman (a charter Senior Fellow of the Center), Kenneth Mack, Frank Michelman, Martha Minow (who has twice served as Acting Director of the Center), and Carol Steiker. Heather Gerken, a former Ethics Fellow, now teaches at Yale. Lawrence Lessig, a leading expert on Internet law, the Ethics Center's new Director as of July 1, 2009, also holds a position at the School.

A variety of ambitious initiatives have been developed at the PLP to promote the study of ethics and lawyers in the context of institutions and practices. The Center on Lawyers and the Professional Services Industry is a prominent example. Launched in 2004, the Center is the first major effort by any law school to bring academics and practitioners together on an ongoing basis to examine the transformation of the global market for legal and other professional services. In 2005, after completing an intensive study of the ethical infrastructure of large law firms, the PLP embarked on a five-year, Cogan Foundation supported investigation of how corporate clients purchase legal services.

In 2005, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics was established to encourage high-level, interdisciplinary scholarship and research on health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics. Petrie Professor of Law Einer Elhauge, who is a Faculty Associate of the Ethics Center, is its first director. Required and elective curriculum offerings in ethics have expanded at the Law School along with the research and teaching interests of faculty, developments in the profession, and student demand. All students are required to complete a course on the ethics of the profession. The required course became one of the most popular offerings when Wilkins, voted the top teacher by graduating seniors, enriched its content and enlivened its pedagogy. Now the course, generally under the rubric of "The Legal Profession," is taught in various versions by several of the other leading faculty of the school.

The course has three major goals: to introduce students to the kinds of ethical decisions they might be asked to make in their careers; to examine the larger questions of professional structure and ideology; and to encourage serious consideration of the image of lawyers both inside and outside the profession. Students also frequently address ethical dilemmas in courses throughout the curriculum. Popular elective courses, seminars, and workshops developed in conjunction with the PLP offer students the opportunity to consider ethical issues in fields such as transnational practice, trial work, immigration law, federal tax practice, professional service firms, and public law, and to better understand the challenge of managing their own careers in a profession that has been transformed by competition, outsourcing, and global markets.

In the tradition of the Ethics Center's emphasis on cross-disciplinary learning, a number of Law School offerings have been developed jointly with ethics faculty from other departments and schools. From 2001 to 2003, for example, Martha Minow served as co-chair, with Harvard philosophy professor Thomas Scanlon, of the University Program in Justice, Welfare, and Economics, which supported fellows and hosted seminars and a conference. Minow, a past winner of the Law School's Sacks-Freund Award for excellence in teaching, also was instrumental in organizing a 2005 conference with the Harvard Graduate School of Education entitled "Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights, and Education." She also delivered the Distinguished Lecture at the University of Southern California's Program on Law and Humanities on "Tolerance in an Age of Terrorism." Fallon, a constitutional law expert who has twice won the Sacks-Freund Award, has lead a joint Law School-Kennedy School course on the First Amendment's speech and press clauses with former Kennedy School professor Fred Schauer. Carol Steiker, Howard and Katherine Aibel Professor of Law, is co-teaching a seminar with Divinity School professor Sarah Coakley entitled "Justice and Mercy in Jewish and Christian Tradition and American Criminal Law." Steiker also expanded her seminar on "Capital Punishment in America" and taught it as a large course to over 80 students.

Student and alumni interest in ethics-related courses, seminars, executive education, conferences, lectures, research, and publications at the School continues to grow. Looking to the future, funding has been included for this field as a goal in its ongoing capital campaign. Attracting, developing, and retaining talented and committed faculty to carry on this important work is a significant challenge as the PLP pursues its aim of becoming the preeminent center for teaching and scholarship on ethics and the legal profession.