Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Information

38 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 347 (1981)


One of the reasons we modern American lawyers find the "golden age" of our 19th century forebears attractive is that it was morally unambiguous. It seems to have been an age of giants who were consistent. The "republican" lawyers who wrote our first statements on legal ethics were moral theologians as well as leaders—and they found no difficulty in being both. David Hoffman, who attracted as much applause from the conservative Calvinists at Princeton Theological Seminary as he attracted from the bench and bar, drew no distinction between the morals he practiced at home and the morals he practiced in his law office, in court, and among his Whig political colleagues. The morals he learned from his parents and from the Bible were the morals he urged on his students, his fellow lawyers, and his clients. George Sharswood, more keenly aware than Hoffman of the irony of the enterprise, nonetheless directed lawyers to the Sermon on the Mount. Thomas Goode Jones, speaking to a later generation of lawyers, one which had come too readily to the comfort of the adversary ethic, insisted—and insisted even as a matter of law—that the lawyer's conscience must learn to respond for what the lawyer and client do together.

The profession's troubled conscience after 1870 parallels the development in America of collective law practice. The dominant descriptive fact in the way American lawyers organized their practices after 1870 is the law firm; the dominant ethical fact is the adversary ethic, the explicit claim that lawyers are to be excused for what their clients have done, do, and propose to do. Lawyers have come to practice law in groups, to appear before their communities as collectivities, to become institutions, and to think of themselves as sub-cultural brotherhoods. Perhaps they have done this for moral reasons as well as for social and economic reasons. It is possible that the law firm and the adversary ethic have something to do with one another.

Moral reasons appropriated from the past are fair game for historian and law teacher, but they are the special province of the novelist of manners and, in this vocational instance, of the novelist of manners who also understands lawyers and law firms—for example, Louis Auchincloss, New York lawyer and literary successor to Henry James. Auchincloss might not claim law-firm morals as his special province, but I do—or at least I would like to use his work to study morals—because his novels are able to move modern lawyers' morals back to where they come from, to a context and a story. In this case, the story is the novelist's way of describing how lawyers in law firms came to accept or to refuse the moral burdens they (and we) identify as heroic stuff—heroic both as to our forebears in the "golden age" and as to lawyers in the modern heroic myths of criminal-defense practice," small-town leadership," and vertical mobility.


This article was originally published as Thomas L. Shaffer, Henry Knox and the Moral Theology of Law Firms, 38 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 347 (1981), and has been reproduced with permission.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.