Law firms under pressure to show values in clients they take on

Vaughan: Law firms have more agency about the choices they make

There is increasing pressure on law firms to show their values in who they act for, and young lawyers should be part of the process of defining them, a seminar heard this week.

As an example, firms risked reputational damage from being associated with global warming if they represent corporations that do not subscribe to net zero principles, according to Sue Garrard, who was formerly responsible for Unilever’s commitment to sustainability.

The event, Can law firms have values?, was held by UCL’s law faculty and hosted by Steven Vaughan, professor of law and professional ethics, and visiting professor Sarah de Gay, former general counsel and now special adviser to City firm Slaughter & May.

Also on the panel was Jeff Twentyman, a corporate partner at Slaughter & May. He observed that some of the young lawyers most passionate about the environment went on to represent major polluters and that law firm career structures tended to encourage this ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’ transformation.

But it was now generally understood that, while law firms had to represent clients to the best of their abilities, they could exercise a positive choice as to which clients to sign up in the first place, he went on – the senior partner of a rival magic circle law firm had first articulated this responsibility a year ago.

Responding to the issue of young lawyers abandoning an idealistic ethical stance, Professor Vaughan told Legal Futures: “People change. Those lawyers who come in as bright-eyed trainees then get mortgages and have other commitments…

“What also happens is that they… become the products of the contexts in which they work. If they see partner X perfectly happy to do work for client Y, then there’s a chance they will start to think that’s perfectly fine as well.”

Ms Garrard urged law firms to take a stand that went beyond simply existing to make a profit, so that they worked too to ensure fair access to the law and comply with professional standards.

“Personally, I feel that there needs to be a real sense of choice made by particularly major leading law organisations about a belief set that really drives them. Are they really agnostic about everything that’s happening in the world? It’s almost impossible to believe.”

She went on: “I think there’s something about the dignity of the individual that they bring to their work, almost always a desire to do something well, and to have meaning in their life…

“Surely what most of us want is to choose to have a life well led, which is a life with meaning, which in some way is a life of service.”

Also on the panel was Dr Henrietta Hughes, until recently the NHS’s national guardian, responsible for making speaking up business as usual across the health service.

She said it was vital for law firms to have a consistent culture of integrity; they should speak to every part of the organisation to draw up their core values.

“The opportunity is to stay really current and bring in the thoughts and ideas of the youngest and the most junior people perhaps in the organisation, because that’s actually what the future is going to look like.”

Professor Vaughan concluded after the event: “What we learned from the evening, I think, is both that law firms have more agency about the choices they make than perhaps they immediately recognise and also that there is real appetite for conversations about values and purpose to take place; something I am not sure existed a few years ago…

“The rule of law is sometimes waved about as a reason why law firms need to act for certain clients or why they should be neutral intermediaries and not have their own values and so on. But the problem is that the rule of law is a deeply contested idea.”

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