John Dean and Ethics: An Interesting Combination

John Dean is going to teach an ethics course.

Now, if you’re less than 40 years old and/or not particularly a student of government history, that might not mean much to you. If you paid attention to Watergate, either during the actual downfall of President Nixon and so many others or studied it after the fact, you’ll understand.

A fascinating New York Times story last weekend (repeated on a number of legal web sites) revealed the very few choices the White House counsel at the time had when he learned of the scandal. The political scandal led to a wide array of ethics reforms.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

Learning ethics by studying Watergate might sound like learning about fiduciary duties by studying Bernard L. Madoff . That, Mr. Dean, 72, said in an interview, is the point. “I helped write the book of what not to do, so I’m hopeful that people can learn from that — and not make the mistakes I did.”

The half-day program focuses on the events of the week after the arrests of the burglars, when G. Gordon Liddy explained the extent of the White House “plumbers” operation to Mr. Dean, the White House counsel, and Mr. Dean’s involvement in obstruction of justice began. “That first week foreshadows everything, raises everything a lawyer can be confronted with, and it’s where the problems started,” Mr. Dean said.

The issues are complex, but come down to this: What are a lawyer’s obligations when his bosses are engaged in criminal acts?