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Impact Meets Innovation: Albany Law School’s Mark on Legal Ethics

Legal Ethics History Book

[In February 2020, Professor Ava Ayers announced that she is transgender. This article has been edited to reflect her gender identity. Read more here.]

ALBANY LAW SCHOOL HAS BEEN A DRIVING FORCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF LEGAL ETHICS SINCE THE 19TH CENTURY, when Matthew Hale began teaching personal rights and legal ethics at the law school as early as 1882. By 1903, still fewer than half of the country’s law school programs offered legal ethics as part of the curriculum. This began to change in the early 20th century, in large part thanks to Albany Law School alumnus Thomas H. Hubbard.

Hubbard, for whom legal ethics was a passion, was a member of the Albany Law School Class of 1861. He then served in the Civil War, attaining the rank of brigadier general in the Union Army. In 1902, he gave Albany Law School $10,000 to establish a course of legal ethics lectures. He gave the first lecture—“A Plea for an Improved and Uniform Oath for Attorneys upon Their Admission to Practice”—himself. The Hubbard Lectures, as they would become known, attracted the country’s elite legal minds to Albany Law School. U.S. Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer 1858 spoke at the 1904 commencement as part of the Hubbard Lectures on the topic of the “Lawyer as Legislator.” William Howard Taft, the former President of the United States and future Supreme Court chief justice, gave a lecture at the law school in 1914 on the topic of “Ethics of the Law.”

Ethics of Law History Book

During this time, President Theodore Roosevelt had some harsh criticism for the lawyering pro-fession. In a 1905 commencement address at Har-vard University, the president said that he believed lawyers were undermining “the moral spirit of the law, and the public interest it was designed to serve, by enabling the wealthy clients to implement their own private interests at the expense of the law, rath-er than strengthening the law by advocating it to their clients and eliciting their better nature.” In response, the American Bar Association established a committee tasked with creating a national canon on legal ethics. Of the 14 committee members, three were Albany Law alumni: Hubbard, Brewer, and Alton Brooks Parker 1872, the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals from 1898 to 1904. Af-ter an unsuccessful presidential run in 1904, Judge Parker resumed practicing law and served as ABA president from 1906 to 1907. The stage was set for three prominent jurists from Albany Law School to shape the future of legal ethics in the United States.

In undertaking their mission to create a national canon, the committee first examined the 11 existing state codes of ethics—with special attention to first-in-the-nation Alabama’s—and then looked to Justice George Sharswood’s “Essay on Professional Ethics” and David Hoffman’s “Fifty Resolutions in Regard to Professional Deportment.” After careful consideration, the committee drafted a report in 1907. This report, along with a reprinted copy of Sharswood’s “Ethics,” was sent to all ABA members and all state and local bar associations for suggestions and comments. After considering these re-sponses, the committee officially adopted the ABA canons of legal ethics in 1908. These canons would remain in place as the guiding principles for legal professionals for more than 50 years. Hubbard and Parker, along with James Newton Fiero, the sixth dean of Albany Law School, then went on to help New York State adopt its own code of ethics based on the ABA’s.

Albany Law School’s foresight in prioritizing the field of professional ethics created a proud tradition that continues today with the scholarship and teaching of its faculty, includ-ing Professors Ava Ayers, Vincent Bonventre, Ray Brescia, and Patrick Connors, and Dean Connie Mayer.

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