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Law department as the “independent beacon of ethics and compliance” (Computer Associates)

“Purer than Caesar’s wife” means absolutely pristine, above reproach, the avatar of rectitude. She should practice in a law department if its lawyers are expected to be “the independent beacon of ethics and compliance.” Thus spake the general counsel of Computer Associates to the Executive Editor of InsideCounsel, April 2006 at 80. Beware the ideas on the march!

Of course lawyers ought to be ethical. Of course they need to promote compliance with the law. But why should they be exalted as the shining light, the beacon that shows everyone what is ethical and compliant? Later, Kenneth Handal takes pride that “We empowered our lawyers to make decisions and do what they think is right.” If business clients don’t do right, lawyers are a paltry defense. If expected to patrol propriety, in-house counsel will be shoved back into the whistle-blowing cop role.

Don’t misunderstand me. Moral behavior and integrity are wonderful, but is that the topmost demand on law department lawyers (See my post of today on business aptitude more important than legal skill.)? It perturbs me that legal knowledge and business savvy do not have pride of place.