Normative, and Somewhere to Go - Reflections on Professional Responsibility


  • Richard F. Devlin



In this article the author offers some reflections on professional responsibility. He straddles the optimist and pessimist perspectives espousing "pessoptimism" as a more adequate position than either extreme. The author begins by deconstructing the title of the conference in which the paper was delivered: "A New Look: A National Conference on the Legal Profession and Ethics," which took place in Calgary, in June 1994. Pursuing a middle path between the optimistic and pessimistic approaches to professional responsibility, the author outlines the parameters of his ethical vision which provides some directions for legal practice. There are three elements to his restructured ethical vision: the "talent" of critical self-reflexivity, the maxim to act responsibly and the injunction to do no harm. The author draws two conclusions from his study: first, it is possible to talk about legal ethics and to outline some procedural and substantive ethical guidelines. Second, ethics are plural and diversified, contingent upon the nature of the "law job" involved. Finally, the author attempts to locate the "ethical triad" in the context of several different aspects of the legal profession; in legal education, as law students, lawyers, judges, benchers and legislators. He suggests that the primary responsibility for improved legal service lies with those who are within the system and that legal ethics ought to be seen as enforceable "public" norms. In conclusion, returning to the notion of "pessoptimism," the author advocates an optimistic approach but sets out reservations and cautions. In the end, the author hopes that if the legal community cannot agree to do more good, perhaps it can at least agree to do less harm.