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Ethics in Service   By: (1857-1930)

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First Page:


BY William Howard Taft

Addresses Delivered in the Page Lecture Series, 1914, before the Senior Class of the Sheffield Scientific School, Yale University

[Illustration: Yale University Press Crest]


Copyright, 1915 By Yale University Press

First printed October, 1915, 1000 copies


The legal profession discharges a most important function in a civilized community, and it seems to me that a discussion of the ethics and ideals of that profession would come within the purpose of the Page foundation, which is described by the donor as intended to promote "the ethical side of business life, including the morals and ethics of public service." I shall first ask your attention to the history of the profession, which shows that a paid advocacy is the only practical system, and to the rules of conduct to which lawyers must be held in order that such a system shall promote justice. I cannot claim to have any peculiar knowledge upon this subject other than that derived from a somewhat brief practice of five years at the Bar, from an experience of eleven years on the Bench of trial and appellate courts, from a somewhat varied experience in the responsibility of government, not only in this country, but in those far distant isles of the Pacific in which the United States has been grafting the principles of free government upon a civilization inherited from Spain.



I. History of the Profession of Law. 1

II. Legal Ethics 19

III. The Executive Power 37

IV. The Signs of the Times 65

V. More Signs of the Times 83



It is not too much to say that the profession of the law is more or less on trial. It is certain that there is a crisis in the life of our courts, and that a great political issue is being forced upon the people, for they must decide whether the courts are to continue to exercise the power they now have, and what character of service they shall be required to render. Judges are lawyers. They ought to be trained practitioners and learned in the profession of the law before they ascend the Bench, and generally they are. Therefore, our courts, as they are now conducted, and our profession, which is the handmaid of justice, are necessarily so bound together in our judicial system that an attack upon the courts is an attack upon our profession, and an attack upon our profession is equally an attack upon the courts.

We have all noted on the stage and in the current literature the flippant and sarcastic references to the failures of the administration of justice, and we are familiar with the sometimes insidious and too often open impeachments of the courts, which appear in the press and upon the hustings. They are charged with failure to do justice, with bad faith, with lack of intelligent sympathy for socially progressive movements, with a rigid and reactionary obstruction to the movement toward greater equality of condition, and with a hidebound and unnecessarily sensitive attitude of mind in respect to the rights of property. One count that looms large in the wide range of the indictment against our judicial system is the immoral part that lawyers are said necessarily to play in the perversion of justice by making the worse appear the better reason. Such a public agitation and such an issue in politics lead to a consideration of the fundamental reasons for the existence of our profession in the past, and a further inquiry as to the need for it in the future, as preliminary to a discussion of the rules of conduct that should govern its practice.

There are those who intimate that we can learn nothing from the past. They don't say so in so many words, but they proceed on the theory that man, under the elevating influences with which they propose to surround him, is suddenly to become a different creature, prompted by different motives... Continue reading book >>

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