Law firm culture key to ethical practice, says Law Society president

Shuja: Training is not enough

Law firm cultures where solicitors are able to admit and learn from mistakes are central to ensuring adherence to professional ethics, the president of the Law Society said yesterday.

Lubna Shuja said the profession “can’t simply rely on more training or compulsory education on ethics, which can sometimes focus too narrowly on the application of regulations”.

She continued: “Such an approach is likely to miss out the influence organisational values and expectations have on professional practice in real life, where pressures from clients, courts or our employers can compete and create tensions.”

Ms Shuja has made professional ethics a key element of her term of office and yesterday the society launched an online ‘ethics hub’ that brings together resources for solicitors.

She said the aim was to “create a safe space for solicitors to have challenging but necessary conversations” at a time when “parts of our profession have come under scrutiny for facilitating activities by clients that, although lawful, may be considered by some to be contrary to the public interest”.

Work with members over the last year has highlighted areas where the profession wanted more support, such as client selection and onboarding, changing firm culture, ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues – including climate change, diversity and AI – and corporate structures and the independence of in-house counsel.

Ms Shuja said workplace culture could be a root cause for unethical behaviour and conduct.

“Leadership is key. We must see personal behaviours and virtues across the profession – including at the senior levels – which create an environment that supports, rather than prevents or suppresses, ethical behaviour.

“The culture in any organisation is so important – its openness and propensity to share mistakes, misgivings and learnings, rather than fostering a practice of blame and dismissing concerns. These all have an important role to play in creating an environment of psychological safety.

“In short, it is difficult to imagine a workplace in which good ethics thrive unless there is also a healthy and supportive culture built on trust, openness and principled leadership.”

She stressed that tensions arising from competing pressures from clients, courts and employers could not be “fully solved only by paying close attention to the code of conduct”.

The code says that, where the SRA principles conflict, those which safeguard the wider public interest “take precedence over an individual client’s interests”.

Ms Shuja said: “But these principles do not only come into play when there are issues of whether the borders of legality may have been crossed. Ethical dilemmas often arise within the realm of what is legal but might not be considered as acceptable by some.

“This leaves us to figure out what defines ‘the public interest’ – a relative term that can be subjective, depends on context and can be time/culture-specific.”

Ms Shuja said the next stages of the three-year ethics project would see refined guidance for different segments of the profession “with a distinct focus on the in-house community”, as well as learning and development opportunities and events.

Solicitors Regulation Authority research published earlier this year said that in-house lawyers were generally able to withstand pressures on their independence but a minority reported demands to act unethically – 10% of the 1,200 surveyed said their regulatory obligations had been “compromised”.

A further 5% said they had faced pressure to “suppress or ignore” information which could conflict with their professional obligations, while the same proportion said they had experienced “pressure from colleagues not to disclose information that was not in the best interests of the client”.

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