Ethics – remember them?

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Law students: ethics component set to be added to degree syllabus

During my 12 years working on the Law Society Gazette, one got used to certain clichés. The plastic wrapper would come up a lot, but more than anything people would say how their favourite section was the one detailing solicitors being struck off – it was the same for me as a reader while a trainee solicitor. I felt strangely proud a few months back after recognising three people in one edition of the Gazette’s Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal reports (although they are now published online).

So it is perhaps not a surprise that my story last week on the record number of solicitors struck off in 2009/10 (see here) has proven one of the most popular news items since Legal Futures went live in April. It contributed significantly to Monday being the best ever day on this website.

Why the fascination? There is obviously an element of “There but for the grace of God go I”, as well as sheer voyeurism – such is the respect most lawyers have for the law that they are drawn to tales of those who step over the professional line, wittingly or otherwise. The reports also act as a useful learning tool for others to avoid the same mistakes.

The broader issue here is that of the role of ethics in the modern legal profession, addressed by Legal Services Board chief executive Chris Kenny in his recent speech at Harvard (see story).

Ethics is not a word one hears very often in the legal world, except in relation to law firms’ environmental policies. Of course, this does not mean they are not taken seriously, but there is a general fear that as the law becomes ever more a business – and especially with alternative business structures in the offing – some of the finer points of lawyers’ ethical codes may be discarded in the interests of commercial gain.

Underlying this suggestion is an assumption that non-legal businesses do not operate ethically (or at least as ethically as lawyers), which as Mr Kenny indicates is obviously wrong. Also, given some of the events of recent years (miners, anyone?), lawyers should be careful about throwing the first stone.

Part of the problem has arguably been the box-ticking nature of the Solicitors Code of Conduct, and the hope is that the move to outcomes-focused regulation will put more onus on solicitors engaging their brains and assessing their conduct against the 10 core principles which will in future underpin all of their activity. Referrals are a good example: one wonders whether, in the exercise of complying with the detail of rule 9, some solicitors have lost sight of the wider implications of the deals they have done with introducers.

The other area to address is the role of ethics in legal education. It’s now 20-odd years since I did my law degree, but I cannot remember ethics coming up much during the three years of the LLB, or, come to that, during the year of the Law Society Finals (as they then were). So I am pleased to report that the Law Society’s education and training committee is working towards introducing ethics to the qualifying law degree – a very welcome if overdue step, in my view.

Ethics are not unique to lawyers but they are part of the suite of public protections they uniquely offer to society. I’ve long felt that most, if not all, of the problems in the profession over recent years can be boiled down to the tension between law as a profession and law as a business (legal aid is a good example), but actually this is too simplistic. Law is a professional – need I say ethical? – business. Or at least it should be.


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