The Legal Ethicist: Would Atticus Steal Your Oreos?
by Ruchi Kapoor
This was not a winning strategy, as it turns out.
After getting my score back, I anguished over the fact that I wasn’t a lawyer in the more genteel era of the 1980s, when there were only two clear-cut rules guiding legal professionals: don’t steal from or sleep with your clients.2 What I had chosen to ignore while answering test questions was that legal ethics has become a complex behemoth. The standards of our profession are now based on a set of ethical rules and a bunch of case law involving lots of lawyers who, well, lawyered their way out of those rules. Plus, there are many wordy comments to the rules that give decision makers even more advice to consider when determining the ethical footing of situations featuring other cunning lawyers who have found loopholes — or just plain ignored — the promulgated rules and case law.
So, there I sat, filling in the MPRE scantron for the second time. This time, I theoretically knew better and had decided to treat this more like the standardized test it was, rather than a measure of my personal ethical fitness.
As a child of the standardized test generation, I have developed a set of comfortable routines for test-taking days, which has either helped me focus or coddled my psyche to an unfathomable extent.3 For me, there are three necessary ingredients for a successful test day: two mechanical pencils and one freshly sharpened No. 2 pencil, just in case; clothing layers — test rooms are never kept at a comfortable temperature for any normal human being; and a stack of six Oreo 4 cookies, neatly piled in a plastic baggie, for a post-test reward.
Once I finished, I chewed on my pencil eraser for a few minutes, reviewing my bubbled-in answers and trying to decide whether three Cs in a row meant I had answered one of the questions wrong. I could feel the pressure mounting as people began standing up and turning in their exams, so I hurriedly finished reviewing and added my paper to the pile at the front of the room.5 I returned to my seat and anxiously began throwing my belongings into my bag. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the test-taker next to me had dropped a few of his pencils onto the floor and they were slowly rolling toward me. I crouched under my desk to pick them up and I watched his sneakers move closer to my desk as I tried to help. I grabbed the pencils and triumphantly emerged from under my desk only to notice that he was walking briskly toward the front of the large testing room to turn in his exam.
Puzzled, I looked down at my desk and noticed that four of my six Oreos were missing. I looked back up and watched him hastily cram the last of my cookies in his mouth, give me a jaunty wink, and walk out of the room.
"Rule 8.4 violation!" I wanted to shout. Then, I imagined the various stampede-like scenarios a panicked shout might cause among my anxious brethren — or worse, irony-filled accusations of cheating on the MPRE — and I angrily went back to stuffing my belongings into my bag.
A few weeks later, the Colorado Supreme Court Attorney Regulation Counsel sent me a letter telling me that I was ethically fit to practice law.6 I have yet to run into that Oreo-stealing fool or even identify who he was. But, whether he passed the MPRE that day, he passed on a valuable lesson to me about the difference between being declared ethically fit to practice law and actually being ethical. Sometimes these things overlap and are the same thing, and sometimes the line between them is clearly drawn. But, most of the time, even a line that is clearly drawn can be crossed with a wink and wandering hands when there are chocolate sandwich cookies involved. In situations like that, even Atticus Finch might not be of any help. D
Ruchi Kapoor is an appellate attorney at heart who is currently clerking for the Denver Juvenile Court. "The Legal Ethicist" is a chronicle of her thoughts on legal misadventures. To read more about her personal misadventures, check out her blog at roopakihcur.wordpress.com.
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1 Provided to me "at no extra charge!" by an unnamed bar prep company to which I was already paying thousands of dollars to teach me all the things I didn’t remember from law school.
2 The well-regarded exception to this second rule, of course, was: unless they are attractive and consent. Which are not mutually exclusive considerations.
3 Research has yet to determine. See generally, Jean M. Twenge, generationme.org.
4 Did you know that Oreo is a registered trademark? Otherwise, they’re just trademark-infringing chocolate-wafer sandwich cookies.
5 My paranoia about not being last is based on the children’s truism: First is the worst, second is the best, third is the one with the hairy chest. Women with body hair are not treated well in America, so I try not to risk it.
6 Yes, I did open the letter and cry with happiness and relief. How did you know?