Ethics Hypothetical: Rules, Compassion, Integrity, Fairness, And A Looming Race Card


[The hypothetical is inspired by two recent events I witnessed in the past week.]

Preface: The state requires new bar admittees to take a one-day course covering the basics of practicing law in the jurisdiction—how the courts work, special procedural rules, unique aspects of local practice, horror stories, the works. They must complete the course or they can’t be certified, and the court-ordered series of lectures and presentations is held only once a month.

A company runs the mandatory curriculum under contract to the state, and is required to confirm in writing to the courts that its requirement have been fulfilled. One key requirement is that every attendee must be present for every minute of the presentations, except for brief emergencies, like using the rest rooms. The course administrators carefully monitor attendance. The published description of the course directs that once the course begins, theoretically at 9 am sharp, no late-comers will be admitted.

As you might imagine, missing the session can be quite a hardship, as participants often live and work in other jurisdictions.

The Event: It is 9:08 am on the day of the program, and the introductory video that begins the orientation is almost finished. It consists of interviews with members of the bar about the benefits of practicing in the state, the importance of ethical practice, etc: to say it is not substantive is an understatement. Literally nothing that is said and shown in the video is anything but boilerplate.

A young man, sweating profusely, bursts in the door, looking unhappy and desperate. “I’m sorry I’m sorry!” he babbles. He says that he had to drive up from a neighboring state and had an accident. “Can I still get in?” he pleads.

The male staffer responsible for the session chats briefly with an associate. The program was late starting, and this late arrival will miss nothing if he goes in now. “All right,” the honcho says as the young man heaves a sigh of relief. “I shouldn’t do this, but you haven’t missed anything.” As he goes into the auditorium, one can here the opening remarks of the first speaker, a judge. It is now 9:12 am, and another young man bursts through the door on a dead run. “My crazy cabbie’s been driving me all over the city for an hour!” he shouts. “I flew in last night from Arizona! Please, please, don’t make me do this again…I barely was able to afford this trip.” The administrator is wondering if he had seen the previous guy go into the auditorium. He’s heard this judge’s spiel many times: all that has been missed, to be honest, are a few (lame) jokes. “All right, all right, get in there quick!” he tells the new supplicant. “I’ll finish your paperwork during the break!” The kid looks like he’s going to cry, he’s so relieved.

I’m there, watching this (I’m on the program) and say to the administrator, “I bet this happens every time.” He says, “It does. I know that nobody misses anything that isn’t in the printed materials until 9:15, so it’s a hard stop after that.”

And another late arrival bursts through the door. It’s a bit after 9:14. The staffer has just told me that the final final deadline is 9:15, and it’s not that yet. This poor guy is bleeding through his pants,  has a big bruise on his face, and is saying something about a bicycle accident. By the time he gets himself settled—he is told that there is no time to clean up—it’s past 9:16. He starts toward the auditorium door as the other staffer says, “OK, that’s IT,” and starts to take the registration materials and lists away….just a very stressed young African-American woman enters, in plenty of time to see the bicycle rider, who is white, enter the auditorium. I can hear the judge through the open door. He’s still telling jokes, longer this time than usual.

Issues and Observations

1. The young woman was not admitted, and told that she had to come back another month. She too was from out of state. She also had a legitimate-sounding excuse.

  • Was that fair to her?
  • Should it have mattered that the program had not yet reached a serious stage?
  • She was told that 15 minutes was the absolute, unwaivable deadline. That was true, but it was not the deadline the company was contracted and pledged to enforce. That deadline was 9:00 am.

2. Should the explanations used by the latecomers play any part in the decision to allow them in? Why?

  • They can’t be checked. There is no hardship policy.
  • Moreover, these are lawyers; being late for trial and court proceedings risks serious sanctions. This is the profession they have chosen.
  • If it’s the excuses that matter, does that mean that a student who arrives later but with a better sob story should get a pass, while an earlier but still late arrival who says, “I set my alarm clock wrong last night!” gets blocked at the door?

3. I asked the administrator, as an on-the-spot hypothetical for him (ethicists tend to do this—it’s really obnoxious), “What do you think the last woman would  do if  told her, “you know, they just let in three late registrants minutes before you: all male, one Asian, and the other two white. Just FYI”?

  • He said, “Oh, God. I didn’t even notice.”
  • Isn’t it good that he didn’t notice?
  • Would that help him if the woman complained?
  • Would the woman be justified in feeling, from her perspective, that she had been discriminated against on the basis of race or gender?
  • If she came back to the administrator, after my revelations, and protested, should she have been allowed into the program?
  • What if she didn’t feel that prejudice was involved, but, desperate to complete the course that day, she “played the race card,”  anyway, alleging bias. Would that be unethical?
  • Why should  it matter how she feels?

4. The company has to certify that all of the court’s requirements have been met. Can it?

  • Can it argue that the they were met, according to the spirit of the specifications.
  • If it so certifies, is the leeway granted to late arrivals (before 9:15) still ethical?

Please consider and discuss.

14 thoughts on “Ethics Hypothetical: Rules, Compassion, Integrity, Fairness, And A Looming Race Card

  1. With regards to the spirit of the specifications, I would say yes. On the other hand, there has to be a cutting off point and the contract states that it’s 9 A.M. The administrator sets it at 9:15.


    The administrator seems to have put himself in a position of deciding which part of the presentation is and is not essential. Isn’t there a temptation to vary? What if the unfunny judge starts getting more laughs than normal and it inspires him to keep going? Would the administrator keep letting in people until 9:20?

  2. I can see both sides, but here’s the side that’s harder for many people to see.

    Maybe it’s just my privilege as a (paranoid) security-user that leads me to say this, or maybe it’s having had to deal with such situations in the past. However, if I were in the situation of being unable to fulfill an agreement because some accident outside of my control happened, that’s tough, but I can’t just expect people to ignore my end of the deal because of it. Stuff happens, and people don’t always get what they want, or what they expect. People fail to fulfill agreements, and they can’t expect leniency from others. It is nice of others to give it, but it cannot be required, or else it defeats the point of the agreement, and without reliable agreements, very little can be accomplished.

    It’s edge cases like the one Jack describes that get people anxious, yes, but there will always be cutoffs in life. If I fail to arrive on time, I don’t care if the manager lets someone in who came after me. I have no right to expect they’ll let me in, and if they want to make things awkward for themselves, or help someone else cheat the system, that doesn’t change the fact that I failed. Most of the reason I can accept this is that I know I will have future opportunities. I will work with whatever situation I get and cut my losses.

    When the stakes are significantly higher, however, when someone doesn’t think they’ll get another chance to do something important to them, for which they feel they have no alternatives, that’s when they start trying to use empathy, which counteracts rules for good or ill, to get what they think they need. Perhaps they do deserve it–that is, perhaps the world would be a better place (where more people got what they wanted) if people like them got what they wanted at that moment. Of course, people don’t deserve lots of bad things that happen to them. Sometimes the best we can do is to make sure they are aware of viable alternatives, that they don’t get to the point where they only see one option.

    The price for creating an abstract structure that benefits society is that one must behave honorably–with eusocial order. That means having to be deterministic, to be predictable, and sometimes to be a domino in a chain reaction of misfortunes, making it worse for someone rather than acting with compassion (eusocial chaos) and doing things you can’t be expected to do in order to counteract their misfortune. Without rigid honor, the structure doesn’t exist, and we don’t get the benefits. Some structures can take more leniency than others, but again, leniency is by definition something that you should not count on if you want to participate in the structure.

    The trade of compassion for honor is a hard sacrifice to make, but all great societies must walk the tightrope between the two concepts, even though sometimes it cuts the feet when there is no right answer, and sometimes the feet are numb and can’t feel where the line is. Welcome to the nuance of reality, where the argument between black-and-white and shades of gray is–surprise!–not always black-and-white.

  3. This post reminds me of a recent experience. I am not sure it is relevant to the questions posed in this post. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

    I was recently involved as an official in a highly competitive sporting event that involved the performance of precise activities under time constraints.

    In the past, the officials overseeing the event would verbally gave the commands for the competitors to act on. Inevitably, officials such as myself, would deviate from the exact verbalization of the official commands while still expressing the essential idea of what needed to be done and when.

    From what I gather, some officials apparently had a less than perfect sense of timing and were halting or abrupt or slightly inconsistent in the intervals of their commands. Apparently, in the highly competitive world we now live in, this led to complaints from competitors and their coaches that the competitors suffered adverse consequences from the way the event was officiated.

    Now to address this apparent problem, we have recorded commands… an automated non-human voice… that precisely speaks the commands with precisely measured three seconds interval between commands… every time the exact same words… every time the exact same interval of measured seconds between commands.

    Certainly, I do believe in rules but I also know that sometimes the rules have very little intrinsic meaning or import beyond the mere fact that they are rules and rules are to be followed. In a game or competitive sport, maybe that is the way it should be… no matter how stupid the rules might seem.

    But life is not a game… I think.

    I am sure that competitors and their coaches will still find something to complain about. And that too is life.

    But back to the post… This is too often what happens when we “mass produce” anything whether it be potato chips, sporting competitors, or lawyers… lots of protocols… some making sense and some making not so much sense.

  4. • No.
    • No, because of the contracted requirement that all attendees are on time.
     2: No, because of the contracted requirement that all attendees are on time. Also, They can’t be checked. There is no hardship policy.
     Moreover, these are lawyers; being late for trial and court proceedings risks serious sanctions. This is the profession they have chosen.
     If it’s the excuses that matter, does that mean that a student who arrives later but with a better sob story should get a pass, while an earlier but still late arrival who says, “I set my alarm clock wrong last night!” gets blocked at the door?
    • It’s good that he didn’t notice, but it’s not likely to help him.
    • No, because lawyers are supposed to know how to apply logic (sufficient and necessary conditions and all that).
    • Yes, now that they’ve already relaxed the standards, but not on the basis of race.
    • Yes.
    • It doesn’t.
    • 4: No
    • It can argue, and maybe they’ll win. I’d pay them half their normal fee.
    • If the employer is satisfied, yes. If you want to be absolutely certain that a seemingly arbitrary decision to exclude you isn’t made, get there on time. All things considered, it’s not asking too much, especially of a new hire.

  5. I once witnessed a case on point. It was a national exam held at many centres where the rules were that the exam started at 9am at all centres and no-one was to allowed into the room after 9-00 and no-one was allowed to leave the room before 9-30. This seems a reasonable precaution against various types of fraud. The exam is held every few months, and is very important in the job market.

    The candidates duly assembled in the room between 8-45 and 8-55, and then at 9-00 and 30 seconds one last candidate showed up, only to be refused admission. This was actually quite a big deal – it would have caused several month’s delay for him in getting a good job, but the administrators were firm and he accepted it without a big fuss.

    It seems to me the only way to be fair is to say 9am means 9am. If it is important to you, plan ahead, reserve a hotel room across the street, turn up an hour early, whatever it takes. Don’t blame the administrator for your own failure to take the deadline sufficiently seriously.

    BTW, who is going to be the one to tell the judge his speech is not important? Not me, for sure.

    Through the above lens the questions are easy:
    1. No excuses allowed whatever. To allow any excuses would be unfair to everyone who did plan and act accordingly.

    Giving 15mins grace is a mistake – this is like the paradox of the heap. Unless you say ‘no grace’ there is no real hard point to stop extending the grace period.

    2. No excuses allowed whatever.

    3. Avoid this entirely by not allowing late entry.

    4. See 3. Personally I think it is really bad if a lawyer certifies something contrary to actual fact. That’s how you lose the value of written laws, find the constitution means something different that what the actual words mean, etc, etc.

    Finally, this case is a good example of “why we can’t have nice things”, the nice thing in question being discretion in applying the rules

    • “The candidates duly assembled in the room between 8-45 and 8-55, and then at 9-00 and 30 seconds one last candidate showed up, only to be refused admission.”
      And do you know if the watch was accurate? He could have been on time and the administrator’s watch may have been a minute fast.

      • Errol asked, “And do you know if the watch was accurate?”

        And what’s to stop the student from setting their watch 15 minutes behind?

        In today’s world with cell phones, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would have different times unless they are purposely trying to cheat.

        It is the responsibility of the organizers to know the correct time just as it is the students responsibility to know the correct time, when the clock “strikes” 9:01 based on the organizers clock the door is closed.

    • Ditto. Depending on the risk level (This would be risk of the highest order.) I would shift the probability of risk earlier. For example, let’s say I live 25 minutes from the venue. Instead of eating breakfast and leaving home at 8:00am (for a 9:00am start), I would leave before breakfast and arrive near my venue at 8:00am and look for a place to eat breakfast there. If calamity happens, I can skip breakfast and I have extra time. If calamity happens after breakfast, I’m only 2 minutes from the venue and the impact will be negligible.

  6. It seems to me that letting things slide is a slippery slope. By not strictly enforcing the 9AM rule then they are making judgement calls where the ethics get slipperier and that slide keeps going.

    As you pointed out and another commenter noted, the legal world doesn’t tolerate poor punctuality well. When it is something as important as this, you need to be prepared to get there well in advance. If you’re traveling great distance, get yourself to the walking vicinity the night prior. Both air travel and long distance driving are highly prone to lengthy delays. Who hasn’t sat on the freeway 3 hours or in the airport for 5?

  7. I would have turned away everyone that arrived after the predetermined and published firm starting time of 9:00am and I would not have made concessions for any of them; period.

    The real world does not revolve around life’s circumstances that can directly or indirectly affect someone being punctual, and it’s not my duty in life to change what I’m doing just because someone else cannot follow the rules – for whatever reason.

    Early is on-time, on-time is late, and late is unacceptable.

    Yes I already know that I’m a hardass.

  8. I am living in a newly-incorporated city here in Texas that has been breaking laws of the State right and left for the past two years. When complaints were filed with the County District Attorney, he told us, “We tend to cut a new City a lot of slack. After all, their new and don’t really know what they are doing.” My first response was “Apparently, neither do you. If a man commits one murder, you just let him slide, because he’s new at it.?’ The law is the law, and rules are rules. We can get into serious trouble lackadaisically enforcing either. The rule (contract) says 9:00, the cut off is 9:00. Period, end of sentence.

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