LSB chief: Profession needs “course correction” to boost public confidence

Hill: Younger lawyers need to be involved in conversation about profession’s direction

Lawyers need to recognise that their role comes with “privileges and obligations” at a time when there is public concern about unethical behaviour, the chief executive of the Legal Services Board has said.

Suggesting a “course correction” might be needed, Matthew Hill said lawyers needed to put fairness and public confidence ahead of actions which raised questions about unethical behaviours.

In an interview for Obelisk Support’s World in Motion report published yesterday – which looks at how the profession’s culture needs to change – Mr Hill asked: “What are lawyers there for? Is the legal profession just a means of making a living or does it have something more profound to it?

“In my view, lawyers play an absolutely key role in underpinning a safe and civilised modern democracy, and how lawyers go about their business has a major influence on public confidence.

“And yet, there is an undoubted perception – fueled by things like the Post Office scandal, increased public awareness of the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up misconduct in the workplace, and weaknesses in sanctions and anti-money laundering compliance – that this role is not always front and centre for all legal professionals.

“Indeed, towards the ends of the spectrum of perception is a view held by some serious commentators that some legal professionals are willing to do just about anything to someone if the money’s right.”

He acknowledged that everyone subject to legal proceedings was entitled to a defence. “But there are documented concerns about the conduct of lawyers in cases where an imbalance of power leads to an unfair, detrimental outcome for someone or where individuals in vulnerable circumstances are exploited to benefit the other party.

“While these descriptions of unethical behaviour clearly cannot be applied fairly across the professions as a whole, I don’t think it would be wise simply to dismiss them.”

Mr Hill said younger lawyers needed to be involved in the conversation about what they wanted from their profession, as more senior practitioners had less incentive to change the culture.

He highlighted climate change an example of this. “We’re seeing a new generation of potential leaders who have lived through a different part of history and are likely to have different priorities as a result. Focusing on issues of social justice and social conscience is normal for them. You might start seeing that expressed in how businesses are formed and run.”

The key was understanding that being a lawyer came with privileges and obligations, Mr Hill explained.

“By all means enjoy the privileges but society will demand the obligations. You’ll have to give up some of your rights – you won’t be able to say exactly what you want in public, or behave as you want, because what you say or do has an impact on public confidence.”

This was a link that many lawyers did not make, he suggested.

“Understanding and indeed living this trade-off is perfectly compatible with a very successful and rewarding career. What it boils down to in the end is an overriding commitment to the law as a means of securing fair outcomes that recognise a broader public interest, while focusing closely on the best interests of the client.

“And it means eschewing any sense of the law – or rather the craft of the law – being used to harass, intimidate, silence, or otherwise get in the way of those fair outcomes.”

On equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), Mr Hill said a person could not be “properly pro-EDI and pro-status quo at the same time”.

He xplained: “Existing business models have contributed to the current situation, which I think most leaders recognise is not where they want to be. So you might have to be prepared to flex those business models and associated custom and practice if you want to make progress.”

Work allocation was an example. “We have absolutely no way of knowing if there are imbalances in the way work is allocated, because there is almost no data publicly available. Hypothetically, if you had to publish data every year, for example, about the value of work allocated by protected characteristics, you may start getting some insight.”

He also cautioned against complacency that the demographics of law students today would automatically mean that the law is in a better place in 20 or 30 years.

“It’s not a safe assumption that today’s entry level composition will be tomorrow’s partner composition. It might look a little more diverse but will still be skewed because of the profession’s structure.”

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