Document Type


Publication Title

Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics



Publication Date



1908 Canon of Professional Ethics, moral values, religious beliefs, conscience, professional norms


The 1908 Canons of Professional Ethics directed a lawyer to "obey his own conscience."' Lawyers receive similar advice today. Writings on legal practice encourage lawyers to make professional decisions based on their moral values and religious beliefs, as expressed in the familiar injunction: to be charted by one's own "moral compass." Underlying this advice is an assumption about the professional norms - namely, that they accommodate, if not contemplate, lawyers' reliance on personal values. This assumption finds some support in the contemporary codes of lawyer conduct, which acknowledge a role for the lawyer's "conscience" or "moral judgment." Yet, it is open to question whether the legal profession's contemporary norms assign a leading role to lawyers' personal values or merely a bit part. And surprisingly, given the centrality of this question, the legal literature addresses it only peripherally. This Article responds by examining in detail how the legal profession's norms both accommodate and limit lawyers' reliance on their own moral and religious understandings. In so doing, it challenges both those who assume that personal and professional values generally can be integrated and those who assume that professional norms eclipse personal conscience. After describing various claims concerning how a lawyer's personal values may influence professional decisionmaking, this Article challenges the most robust claim, namely, that the professional norms contemplate that personal values may play a role in all professional decisionmaking and, therefore, lawyers can be accountable to their consciences in all aspects of their professional lives. The Article explores the extent to which lawyers actually may act on the basis of personal moral and religious beliefs while also claiming to conform with professional norms. It demonstrates how particular beliefs, especially highly specific ones, often must be excluded from central aspects of lawyers' professional work. Finally, the Article identifies some implications of this tension between professional norms and personal moral values both for the legal profession and for individual lawyers.