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July 26, 2017

5 Steps to Ethical Living

Ethical Living

I call myself a recovering lawyer.  I have lost my bar license that I worked very hard for my whole life.  I lost my law firm and the honor of working with my father as a partner.  I have learned so much over the past few years and had time to reflect on how I got to this place.  How did I allow myself to make certain decisions that ultimately led to my prison sentence?  During 2007-2009, I certainly was striving for ethical living, do what was legal, to take actions that were approved by the parties involved.  I call myself a recovering lawyer.  I have lost my bar license that I worked very hard for my whole life.  I lost my law firm and the honor of working with my father as a partner.  I have learned so much over the past few years and had time to reflect on how I got to this place.  How did I allow myself to make certain decisions that ultimately led to my prison sentence?  During 2007-2009, I certainly was striving for ethical living, do what was legal, to take actions that were approved by the parties involved.

But, here is the thing, the question “Can this pass legal muster and be approved by all parties involved?” is a very different question than “Is this ethical and the right thing to do for all parties involved?”  When a federal judge sentenced me to prison, he reflected and said that as a lawyer, I had a fiduciary duty to ask more questions, to do more than just what was legal on its face, but to inquire, consider other issues, all the parties and dig deeper.  I was to have asked whether or not what was happening was not just legal on its face but what else was going on? Did the totality of actions not only pass legal muster, but was it ethical?  Was it in the best interest for all the parties?  I failed in doing this.  Though my gut kept screaming to ask more questions, I didn’t want to ask the hard questions because I needed the transactions to close and I wanted this important client to continue to use my legal services.

There are five ethical standards of a fiduciary that I should have paid more attention to.  Transparency, Integrity, Conflict of Interest, Due Diligence, and Ownership.  So, the question is, how do we continue to focus on these ethical standards.  McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin states in its Ethics Unwrapped series that we should all “[c]onsider the roles that values and value systems play in shaping the relationship between laws and ethics.” The organization’s writings go on to discuss certain factors that are critical to making moral decisions and acting ethically.

In my years of my case which started with the initial investigation, reviewing discovery, the decision to plead guilty, testifying against a co-defendant and cooperating with the government, preparing for sentencing, incarceration, and supervised release which I am now serving….I have learned that the following five components are vital to practicing legal ethics for any lawyer and, thus, a fiduciary.

5 Steps to Ethical Living

1. Ethical Vigilance

To explore your capacity to reflect and appreciate the ethical aspects of your decisions, one must practice ethical vigilance:

i. Pause
ii. Listen to my inner voice
iii. Reflect
iv. Do an ethical reality check
v. Make the best conscious decision that you can every time, no matter the consequence

2. Ethical Choices

Once you have taken the first step of Ethical Vigilance, then comes the decision-making process.  As a lawyer, I was faced with conflicts of interest, pressures from outside sources that may have been well-intentioned to begin with, very real personal and life needs, and more. Your ethical living choices require you to be able to respond, when asked, with a sensible and justifiable answer to any ethical examination.  Would you be willing to share with your parents, mentors, or any other respected colleague in your community all the aspects of your decisions and the consequences of those decisions?

3. Ethical Purpose

Max H. Bazerman & Francesca Gino write in Behavioral Ethics: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Moral Judgment and Dishonesty for Harvard Business school that “Behavioral ethics identifies levers at both the individual and the institutional level to change ethically questionable behaviors when individuals are acting in unethical ways that they would not endorse with greater reflection.”  Having Ethical Purpose requires you to examine your basic human need to act ethically and do the right thing and overcome all the excuses you used to make when facing tough decisions.  There are all sorts of pressures that I faced, not dissimilar to all others in similar scenarios.  If you can be mindful of behavioral ethics, then you will consider attentively the predispositions and circumstances that affect each decision.

Though this list is not exhaustive and I will expand on each of these in other blog posts, some of the influences for my earlier bad decisions include the need to adhere to my traditional cultural Indian values, the need to be obedient and the pressures as a lawyer to zealously represent my client and provide for my family, my commitment to being a strong woman and not asking questions, the desire to achieve that American dream, the cognitive dissonance found within, rationalizations and assumptions, and ethical fading.

4. Ethical Courage

After reflecting, the hardest part is to have the courage to do the right thing.  The very real possibility of losing a client, a job, money, a partner, or other loss can feel daunting.  By digging deep, you must muster the courage to be in a place of ethical living.  To overcome your fears of outcomes and focus on your ethical living values.

5. Ethical Doing

My grandfather’s legacy is this easy phrase.  He fought hard and in difficult times against the British during the Quit India Movement in India with Mahatma Gandhi.  He was in prison with Gandhi and their community members on the day that my father was born.  He was fighting for what he knew was the right.  He was a survivor and a fighter.  I have gone through my challenges and was forced to leave my children for a period of my life, and now I work hard each day to find my way back to the path that I was raised to follow.  The example of my grandfather and all my other mentors will be at the forefront of my daily ethical living examinations.

Once you have examined your intentions and pressures from within and without, then you must DO THE RIGHT THING, EVEN IF IT HURTS.  We must commit to being Ethically Vigilant, making Ethical Choices with Ethical Purpose, and following it up with Ethical Doing.

 

Rashmi Airan‘s mission is to share the need for ethical vigilance and to inspire you to make good ethical choices in all areas of your life. Rashmi is an ethics speaker and consultant fighting to create a culture of conversation and bring ethical issues in business to light, to promote integrity, to enhance commitment to fiduciary duty, to build ethical leadership, and to shift the paradigm of ethics standards through ethics training.

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One Comment on “5 Steps to Ethical Living

Wayne
September 29, 2017 at 7:47 pm

Rashmi, if I may, I would add another “step” or principle to your list: Ethical Accountability. Lawyers struggle with ethical issues of all stripes and there’s a high degree of substance abuse in the profession, for example, based on the pressures of the job and the fast-paced, transactional world we find ourselves in. Having an accountability partner, or system of some sort, is an important step in keeping our feet on the right side of the gray line. We sometimes need an older, wiser “head” as my own granddad used to used to say to help us when we feel that check in our gut. We almost, always know the right answer. We just need someone already in place when the need arises to talk us off the ledge. Thanks for your transparency and insightful posts. Wayne

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