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A Comparative Study Of Professional Ethics: What Can The Ethics Of The Legal Profession Teach Engineers?

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Engineering Practice for a Moral World

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.23.1 - 11.23.15



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Paper Authors


Paul Rossler Oklahoma State University

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PAUL E. ROSSLER directs the Engineering and Technology Management Program and co-directs the Legal Studies in Engineering Program at Oklahoma State University and is an Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management. He is a licensed professional engineer and holds a M.S. and Ph.D. in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech.

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Martin High Oklahoma State University

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MARTIN S. HIGH founded and co-directs the Legal Studies in Engineering Program at Oklahoma State University and is an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University. Professor High earned his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Penn State, and a J.D. from the University of Tulsa. He is licensed as an attorney in Oklahoma, registered as a Patent Attorney to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and licensed as a professional engineer in Pennsylvania.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

A Comparative Study of Professional Ethics: What Can the Ethics of the Legal Profession Teach Engineers? Abstract

Engineering faculty, technical managers, and practicing engineers want to see ethically-minded engineers exit the graduation stage and enter the work force. But how can faculty increase the chances of that occurring? Other professions that impose on practitioners a high level of professional responsibility might provide useful answers. Surprisingly, no better profession exists for this purpose than the legal profession. The endless parade of jokes about attorneys hides the fact that the legal profession possesses a refined ethics curriculum and accountability process.

This paper seeks to understand what the legal curriculum suggests to engineering educators about how and what to include in an ethics curriculum. The paper outlines the high level of development of ethics in law school curricula and the intense regulation of attorneys’ professional conduct. Additionally, a comparison of legal versus engineering ethics curricula material shows the development of the ethical and professional canons for attorneys relative to those for engineers. Lastly, the paper offers suggestions to engineering faculty.


The general public characterizes lawyers as “greedy, manipulative, and corrupt.”1 Corporate scandals, media-circus court coverage, allegations that frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits undermine healthcare, and widely-publicized multi-million dollar tort damage awards work to create this perception.2 Additionally, the adversary process employed in the legal system often works to ensure that at most half of the parties involved in any legal dispute are satisfied. One usually does not need to look hard or far to find a divorcé or divorcée who does not hold in high regard the ex-spouse’s attorney.3

Perception, however, does not necessarily equate with reality. Very few legal disputes end up in court, politicians and business leaders in many cases exaggerate the societal and economic ills wrought by lawyers, and media reports prove less than representative of the ordinary practice of law. Digging into the matter a bit further, a great many lawyers engage in ethical conduct. For example, in 2004 - the last year for which statistics are available - roughly 6,000 lawyers nationwide received sanctions for some kind of ethical lapse.4 That same year approximately 1.1 million persons were engaged in the practice of law.5 Of the lawyers who were sanctioned, the ethical lapse involved typically related to a single case or transaction rather than to his or her entire practice of law and involved lack of communication with clients.

Stated another way, almost all practicing lawyers (99.5%) presumably engaged in ethical conduct. True, not all lawyers who engaged in unethical conduct were found out or reported to their respective bar associations, but the same could be said for other professions. Additionally, there is no evidence that underreporting is any more or less prevalent in the legal profession than in other professions. To encourage reporting, state and local bar associations make complaint forms easily and readily accessible to the general public.6

Rossler, P., & High, M. (2006, June), A Comparative Study Of Professional Ethics: What Can The Ethics Of The Legal Profession Teach Engineers? Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--1038

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2006 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015