Moral Pluck: Legal Ethics in Popular Culture

William H. Simon, Columbia Law School


Favorable portrayals of lawyers in popular culture tend to adopt a distinctive ethical perspective. This perspective departs radically from the premises of the elite moralism exemplified by the official ethics of the American bar and the arguments of the proponents of President Clinton's impeachment. While elite moralism is strongly authoritarian and categorical, popular culture exalts a quality that might be called Moral Pluck – a combination of resourcefulness and transgression in the service of basic but informal values. This essay traces the theme of Moral Pluck through three of the most prominent fictional portrayals of lawyers in recent years – the novels of John Grisham and the TV series L.A. Law and The Practice. It suggests that this work has two potential contributions to legal ethics – as evidence of popular moral understanding and as a guide to ethical conduct. With respect to the latter contribution, the essay acknowledges various limitations but argues that the work deserves to be taken seriously as ethical discourse, and in particular, that it holds up well in comparison to elite moralism.