There needs to be more focus on the “ethical competence” of lawyers throughout their careers, the Legal Services Board (LSB) has suggested.
The LSB is running a programme of work on professional ethics, rule of law and regulation in the wake of several high-profile incidents, including NDAs, the Post Office scandal and strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
According to a paper before today’s meeting of the LSB’s full board, it last month hosted a roundtable event with 30 stakeholders, alongside the International Bar Association, which last year launched a project examining the role of lawyers as ethical gatekeepers within wider society.
Among the main themes of the discussion were the need for “a cultural shift in the profession towards the understanding of their role as lawyers in society to uphold the rule of law and consider the public interest”.
A “clear framework” was also required to allow lawyers “to proactively navigate and test their professional ethical decision making and guide how they will take these decisions (depending on context and facts) and for regulators to address manifestations of poor conduct as they arise.”
Any solutions, participants went on, also needed to address the “disempowerment” of lawyers in the face of “powerful clients, strong commercial and reputational pressures, including law firms’ remuneration policies, and governance structures to support ethical decision-making in all settings (i.e.in-house or in firms/chambers)”.
The LSB said the discussion supported its “emerging view that the regulatory interface between the rule of law and professional ethics may need to be strengthened across the legal professions”.
Professional ethics and the important role lawyers play in upholding the rule of law should be “further promoted in education and training, and ongoing ethical competence should be undertaken to support this throughout a legal professional’s career”.
The standards of conduct and supporting guidance should make the expectations of lawyers clearer, the LSB went on, and regulators’ supervision and enforcement work had a role in ensuring these were “understood, embraced and that good practice is embedded in the workplace”.
The LSB programme is seeking to explore and gain consensus across the sector on what upholding the rule of law means for expectations of lawyers’ professional ethical conduct, and “enhancing the regulatory infrastructure to support and incentivise legal professionals to identify, navigate and respond to professional ethical issues”.
It is also looking to respond to specific types of conduct which may undermine the rule of law are of significance to the public, with a call for evidence on NDAs set to be published in the next week.