When ethics “don’t mean anything”

Many years ago, I heard federal judge J. Skelly Wright tell this wonderful story.  He was presiding over a trial in Louisiana and asked one of the attorneys why the attorney referred to all the witnesses as “Colonel,” to which the attorney responded:  That don’t mean anything – it’s like when I call you Your Honor. “

There are lots of things wrong with painting with too board a brush. This comes up in a variety of contexts. But it seems particularly problematic when the setting is compliance.

Last week,  as reported in the NY Times,  the “Supreme Court [gave]  Goldman Sachs a Do-Over in Securities Fraud Suit. The justices said the bank may renew its arguments that its statements about honesty and integrity were too generic to support a class action for billions of dollars.” (The decision can be found here.)

I’m not sure what lessons should be drawn from this. However, some companies may be tempted to draft compliance policies and other documents that are little more than generic professions of ethicality.  But while this approach might get past the Supreme Court I doubt it would do so at the Department of Justice.

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