U-M Law grads study professional ethics by reflecting on the Holocaust

By Jordan Poll
MSU?Today

For two weeks this summer, 2017 University of Michigan Law School graduates Shannon Gonyou and Mary Waller travelled to Germany and Poland to analyze the conduct of lawyers and judges in Nazi-occupied Europe as a way to reflect on ethics in the legal profession today.

Gonyou and Waller were two of 12 law students and early-career attorneys from around the country selected to participate in the 2018 Law Program of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE).

“The legal world, at least the world of Big Law, moves rapidly,” said Gonyou.

“FASPE was a pause—a chance to think about the type of lawyer and person that I want to be. It brought together ethics, history, and real-life lawyering experiences in order to give us a new lens from which to see our roles and decisions. Focusing so intently on ethics with so many other brilliant lawyers made me feel centered and confident in the days before I embarked on my own career in law.”

Now in its ninth year, FASPE provides a unique opportunity for graduate students and early-stage practitioners in the fields of business, journalism, law, medicine, and religion to engage in an intensive course of study focused on contemporary ethical issues in their professions.

Gonyou and Waller were among 64 Fellows selected through a competitive process that drew applicants from across the United States and the world.

“I had a solid understanding of the rules of ethics before applying, but I wanted to dig more deeply into ethics as a human construct and not just as the rules I had to memorize for the MPRE [Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination],” said Gonyou, an associate in the general litigation group at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago.

“Knowing if, when, and how to speak up when something is wrong is a rarely discussed topic among lawyers. Should I tell another lawyer that they made a grave drafting mistake without offering my client the chance to take advantage of it? Should I make it sound like a witness against my client is lying even when I know she is speaking the truth? Should I grossly stretch the meaning of a statute to save someone from deportation or death? Studying the Holocaust shakes your faith in static rules and institutions. Understanding the human side of legal ethics was something that I didn't engage with meaningfully until FASPE.”

The law program—led this year by Susan Carle, professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law, and Eric Muller, the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor of Law in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law—examines the role of lawyers in the Nazi state, underscoring the reality that moral codes governing the legal profession can break down or be distorted with devastating consequences.

“Bernhard Loesener was a Nazi bureaucrat in Germany who drafted the inter-marriage laws that isolated Jews from marrying Aryans. He said that he stayed in his position because someone else would have drafted harsher laws, but he made sure that they were as lax as Hitler would allow them to be,” said Gonyou. “Hans Calmeyer was a Nazi bureaucrat in the Netherlands who was responsible for declaring who was and was not a Jew. He manipulated the statutes to save as many Jews as possible, but knowingly condemned many to death by applying the label of Jew. Human motivations are complex, but neither of these men were pure in theirs. At the end of World War II, Loesener was tried for war crimes and Calmeyer was commemorated for being ‘righteous among the nations.’ Ethical dilemmas are sticky, and they aren't always more clear in hindsight.”

But, with this historical background, FASPE Fellows are better positioned to confront these issues in modern professional settings.

In Berlin, fellows visited memorial museums, met with a Holocaust survivor, and participated in educational workshops at the House of the Wannsee Conference, the site where state and Nazi Party agencies convened in 1942 to coordinate plans for the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”

In Kraków, they participated in seminars at Jagiellonian University, one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities, and at Auschwitz, where they were guided by the educational staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Together in formal and informal settings, Fellows considered how ethical constructs and norms in their respective professions aligned and differed. Their variety of perspectives, as well as the power of place and context, lent themselves to the strength of the program and that of the lifelong connections formed between participants.

“FASPE added more diversity to my community of trusted professionals,” said Waller, who will work as an associate at Jones Day in Chicago this fall. “The people I met during this fellowship became friends that I can reach out to when I am struggling with a question, and who I can count on to challenge my views. They are professionals who force me to choose a side and help me puzzle out why I want to do a certain thing. They, over the course of my career, will help me to make more informed, well-balanced decisions.”

At the end of the program, each fellow submitted either an essay focused on a contemporary legal issue of his or her choice or a project incorporating themes, emotions, lessons, and reflections on FASPE in another medium (e.g. podcast, creative writing, video, or visual project).

Select essays will be published in the annual FASPE Journal, which showcases work in all five disciplines.

“FASPE filled in the gaps for me of things I had already thought about at Michigan Law,” said Waller.

“Parsing through ethical questions with FASPE gave me more practice to take with me into my professional life. People will ask for my opinion, or even if they do not, I will have more confidence to stand up and say ‘Hey, I think there is another issue we need to look at.’

“This fellowship was a good reminder that I have power as a legal professional even if I am young and inexperienced, and I have a responsibility to honor that by thoroughly evaluating ethical decisions in all facets of my career. I will never forget that.”

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