The profession’s ethics are in the spotlight and junior lawyers want change

Guest post by Dana Denis-Smith, founder and CEO of Obelisk Support

Denis-Smith: Firms need to show, not tell

A report published earlier this month by the Legal Services Board highlighted the ethical risks faced by today’s lawyers.

Looking at areas where lawyers’ conduct can undermine their commitment to the rule of law, the report detailed concerns around the abusing or taking of unfair advantage of other parties, for example through use of so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), the misuse of non-disclosure agreements and the facilitation of ‘creative compliance with the law’ amongst other practices.

Not for the first time in recent years, the profession’s ethics are under the spotlight, so it should not be a surprise that for the next generation of lawyers there is an expectation that the legal sector move with the times and evolve to match a changing world – one where profitability is not necessarily the top priority.

The latest Obelisk Support report into the culture of law firms and in-house legal teams – World in Motion: Why the legal profession cannot stand still – found that nearly three-quarters of junior lawyers surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that they would not join an organisation whose values did not match with their own, even if they were offering more money.

An even higher proportion (86%) said they were looking to effect positive change in society through their work as a lawyer and nearly two-thirds said employers should allow them to refuse to work on certain matters for ethical reasons.

They want to see the culture of their workplaces change and are increasingly frustrated that the profession is being held back by partners still wedded to the traditional ways of doing things and perhaps resentful at the thought of the next generation having it easier than they did.

The importance of workplace culture when it comes to ethics has been highlighted by the Law Society, which is currently undertaking a three-year project on ethical standards, focusing on the need to go beyond the strict application of rules, to ethical behaviour more broadly.

It has found that the profession wants more support in relation to culture change, as well as areas such as client selection and onboarding, ESG (environment, social and governance) issues, corporate structures and the independence of in-house counsel.

Former Law Society president Lubna Shuja says that workplace culture could be a root cause for unethical behaviour and conduct and highlights the importance of leadership and creating an “environment that that supports, rather than prevents or suppresses, ethical behaviour”.

For in-house lawyers, the key ethical question has always been maintaining their independence. Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) research published earlier this year found that in-house lawyers were generally able to withstand pressures but a minority reported demands to act unethically – 10% of the 1,200 surveyed said their regulatory obligations had been “compromised”.

In response, a group of in-house lawyers called on the SRA to issue more guidance, to reach out to the chief executives and boards of employers to outline the regulatory requirements of in-house solicitors, and require that a summary of professional duties should be included in in-house lawyers’ employment terms.

Regulators and professional bodies have an important role to play in shaping culture, creating a framework that gives young lawyers agency and the ability to push back or question what they are being asked to do.

It is, of course, nonsense to suggest that all younger lawyers are, or should be, motivated solely by higher ideals. Just on a practical level, the salaries on offer in the City are obviously attractive to those weighed down by student debt.

Many, however, are looking beyond financial compensation and want to work for an organisation whose culture and values reflects their own, working in a role that does not require them to compromise on their own ethical codes.

If businesses want to continue to attract and retain junior lawyers, they must ‘show, not tell’. It will not be enough to draft the policies and send out the press releases – they have to prove they mean something.

They must consider the values of the organisation and its purpose. That goes beyond just professional ethics, to the implementation of diversity initiatives, considering environmental and sustainability credentials, and looking at the which suppliers they use. It means considering which clients they are prepared to act for and the pro-bono work they undertake.

Some law firms are embracing this and legal businesses such as my own have become one of a handful to become certified as a B Corp, meeting rigorous social and environmental standards that represent our commitment to goals outside shareholder profit.

Others are becoming employee-owned businesses – a small but growing trend in the law.

While law firms are businesses like any other and look to maximise profits, there is a growing realisation that there are alternative ways to measure success.

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