The danged ethics alarms start ringing loudly at the oddest times.
On Thursday afternoon, I was completing a cab ride from Houston’s Bush airport to the downtown law firm where I was to participate in an elaborate Inn of Court presentation, when I noticed some fine print on the window to my left. In its wisdom, the state of Texas had a) designated me a senior before my time, and b) decreed that such newly-minted seniors were among those guaranteed a 10% discount on their can fares. I had two disparate reactions to this stunning development in rapid succession.
First, in the tradition of Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment” when she raged at her daughter (Debra Winger) for becoming pregnant and thus making it imminent that she would be a grandmother, I was ticked off. Then I thought, “Well, what the hell. If Texas wants to save me money (this was going to be a hefty fare), why should I stop it?” Then the ethics alarms started ringing.
The law wasn’t going to save me money, but my hosts, the law firms that were holding the event and paying my expenses to participate. Surely Texas’s law was aimed at giving big firms a 6 dollar break on can trips from the airport. Taking the discount, which required me to ask for it, seemed contrary to the spirit and intent of the law.
Having thus determined to decline the discount, I remembered my duty to clients. I am obligated to charge them for reasonable and necessary expenses, not ethical ones. If I can save a client six dollars or so by just opening my mouth, isn’t it unethical not to do so? Then again, I wasn’t sure the firms and the Inns of Court were truly clients in the typical sense, since I was volunteering my services as a contribution to the American Inns of Court program, which is dedicated to fostering the more ethical practice of law. I was really more of an invited guest than contractor, and already saving my hosts lots of money by waiving a fee for preparation, time and services that would normally be in the thousands. Why was I worrying about the six bucks?
For there was also the cab driver to consider. Of all the parties, he was the one who most deserved the six dollars and presumably had the most need of it. I could justify Texas picking his pocket for the benefit of those on a fixed income, but not so some law firms and their partners could avoid paying expenses they wouldn’t notice, when they were already getting a bargain in their transaction with me that made the amount trivial.
That clinched it. I decided to ignore the discount. The cabbie got to keep his 10%, and since I figure that into my tip (which was 20%), the net difference was close to eight dollars. Finally, the ethics alarms stopped sounding.
What a pain.
And my goal is to make everyone’s ethics alarms work like this.