Is it time solicitors started taking ethics training more seriously?

Posted by Mena Ruparel and Richard Burnham, co-authors of How to be an Ethical Solicitor, published by Legal Futures Associate Bath Publishing

Ruparel: solicitors fail to recognise that ethics problems are theirs to solve

The requirement for solicitors to behave ethically in modern legal practice is more relevant than ever. 

Solicitors are still held in fairly high regard by the public, although that esteem is on the wane according to last year’s Trusted Professions poll by Ipsos Mori.

Lawyers are less trusted than teachers and doctors but at least we prevail over accountants and bankers. We still hold a position of trust but we must work to hold that position. The current Solicitors Regulation Authority proposals to revise the Handbook are evidence that work still needs to be done.

In our recently published book, How to be an Ethical Solicitor, we looked at the different professions, as it interesting to see what they offer in the teaching, learning and development of professional ethics, compared with our own regulatory bodies.

Ethics training for qualified solicitors is not mandatory. This surprises other professionals and the public as it defies their expectations.

During the undergraduate law course, ethics is not taught as a separate subject and so ethics education generally occurs for those who choose to take the legal practice course (LPC). Yet with the routes to entry widening, it is entirely possible that a new entrant will not have undertaken any formal ethics training at all.

Likewise, if a solicitor qualified before the introduction of the LPC, again they may have been exposed to little or no ethics training. The impending introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination will only add to the uncertainty.

Contrast this with the focus placed on ethics by the Chartered Institute of Securities and Investment. Some 20% of its regulatory unit exam is dedicated to matters of ethics and integrity. In 2013, the institute became the first professional body to require UK candidates to pass an integrity test.

It aims to instil the public with confidence that its members act with integrity at all times, “placing integrity before, and above, profitability”.

We cannot say yet whether there is any evidence that passing the test has led to a more robust ethical attitude amongst its members, but putting ethics at the forefront of their professional training is a statement of commitment to values that the public expect.

Although solicitors may be aware of their general ethical obligations, many may simply defer to their firm’s nominated compliance officer when faced with daily ethical or regulatory conundrums, failing to recognise that the problem is theirs to solve.

This is why ethical training is important – it teaches solicitors to identify issues with an ethical element and think through the appropriate response.

It might be stating the obvious, but if the courts and legal professionals lack an ethical foundation, then society will lose respect for the system of rules. These rules help to provide a civilised order upon which society is dependent and is undermined if solicitors, as officers of the court, are seen to act unethically, even if the unethical act is a seemingly innocuous comment on social media.

Indeed, the publicity machine that is social media magnifies the fall-out from ethical failings, so as a profession we need to be seen to be doing everything we can to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Mena Ruparel will be leading a series of workshops at four venues in October 2017. Read more here

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