The Ethics of Cause Lawyering: An Examination of Criminal Defense Lawyers as Cause Lawyers


Criminal defense attorneys are often motivated by an intricate set of moral and ideological principles that belie their reputations as amoral (if not immoral) “hired guns” who would do anything to get their guilty clients off. Using empirical data from interviews with forty criminal defense attorneys I explore the motivations that inform their decisions to enter the field of criminal defense and the values that influence the manner in which they do their jobs. I conclude that many criminal defense attorneys are in fact cause lawyers who are committed to individual clients but also the “cause” of legal reform in criminal law. These dual commitment-- essentially to individual clients versus the collective group of criminal defendants-- occasionally raise ethical conflicts that have largely gone under-examined and that the rules of ethics and professionalism are not well-equipped to resolve. Although examined here through the lens of criminal defending, the ethical dilemma of cause lawyering is a noteworthy problem generally for activist lawyers because they continue to play an important role in socio-legal movements in this country.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Law and Society | Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility | Legal Profession

Date of this Version

March 2005