The Three Laws of Robotics: What Asimov Can Tell You About Ethical Lawyering

Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics were featured in a number of his stories (for example, “Runaround”), his novels (“The Robots of Dawn” and “I, Robot” among others), and his “Foundation” series. They provide:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

When your lawyer represents you, he or she is likewise bound by “laws,” generally, the Rules of Professional Responsibility. These Rules operate much like the First and Second Law of Robotics – but do not require that a lawyer sacrifice his or her own existence in the representation – unlike, say, a robot. In fact, RPC 1.16 specifically mandate that a lawyer shall withdraw if the representation will result in violation of the rules of professional conduct, if the lawyer’s mental or physical health materially impairs the ability to represent the client, or if the lawyer is discharged by the client.

If the client persists in fraudulent or criminal conduct or uses the lawyer’s services to perpetrate a crime or fraud, then withdrawal is appropriate. This is also true if the client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement. To the extent possible, withdrawal should be accomplished so as to avoid material adverse effect on the interests of the client.

This is sort of like what I call the “Black Beauty” standard. You may recall the story of the horse, Black Beauty, who refuses to take his master across a washed out bridge despite being ordered to do so, saving the master’s life by disobeying. Lawyers – and robots – are also required to act so as to prevent their client from coming to harm. In other words, the First Law of Robotics (‘do not harm”) takes precedence over the Second Law (“obey”).

Lawyers, like good horses and robots, must exercise judgment to determine when obeying the client will hurt the client. The lawyer may refuse to perform such imprudent or repugnant acts based upon a fundamental disagreement. Clients should be glad of this constraint. Otherwise, they may find themselves in deep water like, for example, Black Beauty’s master had Black Beauty obeyed his improvident order to cross the washed out bridge!

I have had the chance to serve on the Rules of Professional Responsibility Committee of the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA), as special district counsel for the WSBA Office of Disciplinary Counsel, as a Hearing Officer on Disciplinary Matters and written and lectured on legal ethics. There is much to know and learn about ethical questions. A good place to start is understanding the interaction between the First and Second Law of Robotics.

A good lawyer, like a good horse (or even a good robot), should not blindly obey orders. Such orders cannot be complied with if they work as a fraud upon others, further a criminal enterprise, or even if they simply lead to a fundamental disagreement. The lawyer need not proceed with a representation that has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client or which will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer. Most important, a lawyer is obliged to use his or her independent judgment to make sure that, within the bounds of the law, obeying the ciient’s orders will not harm the client. This requires the exercise of independent professional judgment and protects the client from rash, imprudent, or even criminal conduct.

A competent lawyer is one upon whom is reposed tremendous responsibility by the client, including the responsibility to say “No” when appropriate. A lawyer is more than a robot. But, as Isaac Asimov reminds us, even a robot sometimes has to say “No.”

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