Ethical decision making by attorneys


Public attitude towards lawyers and attorney ethics is typically poor. Unfortunately, little empirical research has focused on the behavior of lawyers, except to find that lawyers tend to disproportionately rely on rules and regulations in approaching ethical dilemmas. Past research involving ethical decision making by mental health professionals was extended into the legal field. Ethical decision making, and the basis for such decisions, by attorneys in Orange County, Florida were studied. Questionnaires were mailed to 400 randomly chosen members of the Orange County Bar Association. The attorneys were randomly divided into two groups; one group was asked to choose (from several choices) what they "should" do in each of five ethical dilemmas and the second group was asked to choose (from several choices) what they "would" do. All were asked to select reasons (from four rationales) for their decisions; two rationales were "codified" (upholding a law or published ethical principle) and two were "noncodified" rationales (personal moral values or intuition). It was hypothesized that: (1) attorneys' "should" choices would be more restrictive or more ethical than their "would" choices; (2) overall, lawyers' choices would be more frequently based on codified rationales; and (3) choices which were based on codified rationales would be more ethical or more restrictive than would choices based on noncodified rationales. Results did not support these hypotheses. In contrast to past research involving ethical decision making among mental health professionals, it was found that attorneys approached ethical decision making on a case-by-case basis and their "should" and "would" choices and rationales for those choices varied according to the particular situation presented. What they reported they "should" do was not more conservative ethically than what they reported they "would" do, in each situation, suggesting that attorneys' "should" choices may have represented a minimum standard of care in ethical dilemmas rather than a maximum. In contrast to what might be expected based on past research with attorneys, subjects did not rely more often on rules and regulations as the reasons for their decisions than on other rationales. Instead, the rationales chosen for their decisions also varied depending on the situation.


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Graduation Date





McGuire, John M.


Master of Science (M.S.)


College of Arts and Sciences






62 p.



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Masters Thesis (Open Access)




Arts and Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic; Dissertations, Academic -- Arts and Sciences

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