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n the Polish city of Radom, back before World War II, Norman Rosenbaum practiced law. Then the Germans invaded and under their statutes stripped Jews of their rights and ultimately shipped them to death camps. By the time Mr. Rosenbaum emerged from Bergen-Belsen and made his way to America, he had lost faith in two former certainties: God and the law.
So perhaps it was destined that his son, Thane, would grow into a very dissident sort of lawyer. At first, he did all the things an ambitious, aspiring lawyer was supposed to do - editing the law review in law school, clerking for a federal judge, winning an associate's position with the prestigious Manhattan firm of Debevoise Plimpton. After just three years, however, he quit.
He wrote several novels and collections of short stories, most recently "The Golems of Gotham," all of them shadowed by the Holocaust. He became a professor at Fordham University Law School, teaching courses not in evidence or contracts or the usual staples but human rights, law and literature, and legal humanities.
And several months ago, the lawyer and the author in him collaborated on a jeremiad against the legal profession titled "The Myth of Moral Justice."
The book contends that from law school on through their careers, lawyers are so imbued with the concepts of serving a client in an adversarial arena ("zealous advocacy," in legal parlance) and unemotionally evaluating facts and rules ("thinking like a lawyer," as the phrase goes) that they fail to answer to any overarching sense of right and wrong.
"These ideas are very foreign to lawyers," Mr. Rosenbaum put it in a recent interview. "They haven't been trained to think in moral terms.
Starting in law school, they learn the conventional paradigm in which the legal profession is detached and withdrawn. It's the cold, rigid, mechanical application of rules. The legal profession is about functioning as the reasonable, objective man, as opposed to asking what is just."
Any accredited law school must provide instruction in ethics, most often in a stand-alone course. These classes typically explore issues such as lawyer-client privilege, confidentiality, conflict of interest and obstruction of justice.
Mr. Rosenbaum, in contrast, wants to remake the very essence of the profession and its education system. Lawyers would seek reconciliation rather than conquest, and courtrooms would serve as forums for aggrieved parties cathartically to tell their stories rather than pursue monetary settlements.
With that sweeping critique, more in the style of Old Testament prophet than a contemporary reformer, Mr. Rosenbaum has accomplished what multitudes of professors long for and so rarely achieve: He has set the terms of public debate.
Reviewers in both The Washington Post and The New York Times, while disputing a number of Mr. Rosenbaum's proposals for change, recommended that "The Myth of Moral Justice" be taught in every law school in the country.
Both the American Bar Association Journal and Legal Affairs magazine devoted lengthy essays to wrestling with Mr. Rosenbaum's thesis.
And at lunchtime one Wednesday in late July, Mr. Rosenbaum appeared amid the deli delivery men 10 floors above Park Avenue at the reception desk of Pryor Cashman Sherman & Flynn. Like several other firms in New York and Washington, this one had asked Mr. Rosenbaum to address its lawyers.
However radical his position, however long his cascading brown locks, he remained part of the tribe, with an insider's acute sense of exactly where to find the vulnerable part of the lawyer's psyche.
Mr. Rosenbaum took his seat at the cherry-wood table of Pryor Cashman's conference room, a place designed for civility with its Japanese woodcuts and sound-absorbent wall fabric. Around him, in cufflinks and cravats or dress-down oxford shirts, there gathered 15 lawyers, more than a tenth of the firm's complement. The next hour and a half was not going to be billed to any client.
"We're here to ask whether there is a spiritual void in this law firm," said Selig D. Sacks, a member of the firm's executive committee, who had arranged the session. When the laughter quieted, he went on more seriously. "What does the way law is administered in this country say about us? What does it say about the way justice is dispensed?" For his part, Mr. Rosenbaum invited the assemblage "to challenge the book's claims and presumptions."
They did something more fascinating and complex than that. For the next 90 minutes, the Pryor Cashman people spoke not only as the lawyers they are but as the comparative literature professors and concert pianists they had been, and as closet idealists prodded into inquiry. Amid knowing references to Moses and Jonathan Swift, they revealed their own moral dilemmas.
Bill Levine, a partner, recalled his experience in a previous firm of having resigned the assignment of representing a pajamas manufacturer that used flammable fabric. "I was severely chastised by several partners," he added.
Richard Frazier, a partner in corporate law, remembered his unease in an earlier job representing Swiss banks against the claims of Holocaust survivors. Ira Goldstein, a senior lawyer in the corporate department, talked about his former specialty in helping "highly profitable corporations become more highly profitable" by laying off workers. He tried to take solace in asking his client to offer ample severance pay.
"But what are we going to say to the client who says, 'Let me get this straight? I'm paying you $450 an hour to have a debate over the morality of what I do?' " asked Steve Goodman, a partner and the most skeptical listener in the room. "Should I say, 'Raise my rate to $750 an hour and we can drop the morality?' "
Mr. Rosenbaum did not expect instant conversions, much less wholesale reform of the profession or legal education.
"If any individual at any time of the day asks how they stand against the moral criteria of the book," he said later, "it's a huge achievement."
He got just such an achievement from Mr. Frazier near the end of the session. "When I went to law school, I didn't intend to have 'lawyer' on my tombstone someday," he said. "Because I knew what I was leaving behind - the ethics class in my philosophy major."