The Practice of Justice: A Theory of Lawyers' Ethics


The Practice of Justice: A Theory of Lawyers' Ethics



Should a lawyer keep a client’s secrets even when disclosure would exculpate a person wrongly accused of a crime? To what extent should a lawyer exploit loopholes in ways that enable clients to gain unintended advantages? When can lawyers justifiably make procedural maneuvers that defeat substantive rights? The Practice of Justice is a fresh look at these and other traditional questions about the ethics of lawyering. William Simon, a legal theorist with extensive experience in practice, charges that the profession’s standard approach to these questions is incoherent and implausible.

At the same time, Simon rejects the ethical approaches most frequently proposed by the profession’s critics. The problem, he insists, does not lie in the profession’s commitment to legal values over those of ordinary morality. Nor does it arise from the adversary system. Rather, Simon shows that the critical weakness of the standard approach is its reliance on a distinctive style of judgment – categorical, rule-bound, rigid – that is both ethically unattractive and rejected by most modern legal thought outside the realm of legal ethics. He develops an alternative approach based on a different, more contextual, style of judgment widely accepted in other areas of legal thought.

The author enlivens his argument with discussions of actual cases, including the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal and the Leo Frank murder trial, as well as fictional accounts of lawyering, including Kafka’s The Trial and the movie The Verdict.



Publication Date



Harvard University Press


Cambridge, MA


"Though slender and unpretentious, William Simon's new book, The Practice of Justice, packs a wallop. Aiming at nothing less than a radical rethinking of lawyer’s ethics, it proposes a new conception of our professional responsibilities and challenges us to examine critically the conventional norms of our professional role. Along the way, it explores the scope and underpinning of our loyalty to clients, our obligations to protect the rights of third parties and our duty to promote justice… Simon’s writing is lucid, well-organized and jargon-free… The cogency of [his] critique of the dominant view…shakes the grounds on which we currently practice… Thus, Simon’s work is profoundly unsettling, even disorienting, both intellectually and emotionally. Therein lies its enormous value."
James M. Altman, New York Law Journal

"Thus, it is easily argued that lawyers should practice under a very different ethical regime. The problem is, then, what should that regime look like? How should we expect lawyers to act in the current context? Simon offers a valuable answer, to be sure… It hasn’t closed the debate over legal, but jump-started it by making a serious and important contribution to thinking about the practice of law. For that he merits great praise."
Thomas M. Hilbink, The Law and Politics Book Review

"William Simon is the George Orwell of the legal profession, a fearless, bluntly honest and clear-sighted observer whose sharp critique of lawyers’ practices arises from his deep attachment to their ideals. Simon’s book is clearly one of the most important statements of the aims, purposes, and practical ethics of law practice ever to have appeared in this legal culture. His ambition is to reconceptualize the entire subject, to give a thorough exposition and critique of the ethical views that currently permeate law practice in this society, and to put forward a fully-fledged alternative. The special power and appeal of Simon’s approach consists in that he views legal ethics neither as solely tied to specialized rules or roles nor as a branch of personal morality, but as necessarily and intimately connected with the justice-serving goals of the legal system. His analysis of how lawyers can cope with the inevitable complexities and ambiguities of a legal system shot through with conflicting purposes is especially brilliant. Unlike so much writing on professional ethics, Simon’s is neither naively idealistic nor cynical and demoralized: it is impressive because his views are grounded in considerable experience, personal and vicarious, of how lawyers actually behave – every point is illustrated by thickly described examples of real practice situations – and are also linked to basic conceptions of jurisprudence and social theory. It would be hard to find a better illustration in legal literature of how theory can inform and structure inquiries into practice, and the knowledge of practice in turn help to qualify and amplify theoretical insight. Original and unconventional, Simon’s work challenges almost all of the prevailing orthodoxies of legal ethics. Whether or not lawyers are ultimately convinced by Simon’s efforts to reconstruct legal ethics on a foundation of lawyering as a justice-seeking profession, if they read his work carefully they will never be able again to think about their work in the comfortable old formula of zealous advocacy in an adversary system."
Robert W. Gordon, Yale Law School


Also available as an eBook through the Columbia University Libraries.


Law | Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility

The Practice of Justice: A Theory of Lawyers' Ethics

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