December 17, 2012
It Is Legal, But Is It Ethical?
The Annual Shapiro Lecture Featuring The Honorable Cruz Reynoso
Building an Ethical Legal Career
The annual Shapiro Lecture was delivered by the Honorable Cruz Reynoso for the BU Law community and the wider audience of WBUR listeners. Reynoso was the first Latino on the California Supreme Court and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton, among other distinctions. But the humble Reynoso that won over the Shapiro Lecture audience simply shared stories of his childhood and early career, of which he recalled, “I became a lawyer because I saw so many injustices.”
Reynoso went to elementary school with other Chicano children in wooden buildings left over from WWII military use because he was excluded from the brick buildings that White children used. Racial segregation also meant that everyone in his Chicano neighborhood had to walk 1.5 miles downtown to receive mail in the absence of U.S. Postal Service home delivery. This social order was legal at the time, but it caused unjust outcomes.
Regarding the segregated schools, Reynoso learned firsthand that “folks often rise to the expectation of their parents and society” when all of his male Chicano peers dropped out of high school to work on farms. Regarding the lack of home mail delivery, Reynoso achieved a better outcome with a letter and petition sent to the Postmaster General in Washington D.C. His father had told him to keep his nose out of government business. But he soon received a response from the Postmaster General—addressed to the then ten-year-old “Dear Mr. Reynoso”—with news of a decision to extend home mail delivery to his neighborhood.
These childhood experiences prepared him for legal advocacy after he switched from studying commercial art to studying law. When striking farm workers were arrested on the order of a judge who violated their First Amendment rights, he struck out on his own to represent them because his supervising partners declined. They had told him to avoid “interfering with economic struggle” much like his dad had told him to keep his nose out of government business. He learned that “not everyone shared the same sort of notion of what a lawyer was.”
The Preamble of the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct defines lawyers as “public citizen[s] having special responsibility for the quality of justice” in the broader society that gives them legal authority. But forty years after legal ethics became an ABA law school requirement, Reynoso is not convinced that lawyers are more professionally responsible than at the time of Watergate. He cited studies of the recent financial crisis that flagged lobbying from political action committees (PACs) as the meltdown trigger. PACs accomplished deregulation by funneling $2 billion from the financial services industry into elections since 1999, and despite superficial financial reform, “nothing basic has changed.”
In response to a question after his lecture about the most important piece of advice he has for young lawyers, Reynoso didn’t hesitate to answer, “Keep your independence.” He meant that both in judgment and in finances—independence to see a greater good where the law obscures it, and independence to work in legal services and government as well as high-paying firms over the course of an ethical legal career.
>>More on Reynoso
Reported by David Linhart ('12)