The Solicitors Regulation Authority is planning a major consultation on ethical values with the profession and the public next summer, chief executive Paul Philip announced yesterday.
Mr Philip said although the SRA would press ahead with proportionate regulation and getting rid of red tape, there would be a “real commitment” to professional values and “what it means to be a solicitor”.
Speaking at the SRA’s annual conference for COLPs and COFAs in Birmingham yesterday, Mr Philip asked: “What can you expect from us and what can the public expect in terms of terms of trust, confidentiality and most importantly integrity?
“I am keen that we have a debate and discussion about these principles.”
He said thought leadership was important for a regulator, rather than “simply having a big stick and whacking people”.
Mr Philip added that members of the public expected solicitors to be “a bit more ethical” than ordinary people, as well as more ethical than accountants.
A report by Birmingham University, based on interviews with almost 1,000 solicitors and barrister, warned this week that the “unbalanced promotion of competition” in the legal services market was putting ethical standards at risk.
Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at University College London, told the conference that there was a tendency for firms to think about ethics in terms of one or two individuals who were “bad apples”, or a few bad firms. He encouraged lawyers instead to think about people taking “bad decisions in bad circumstances”.
He said there was a lack of training about ethics for law students, at a vocational level but particularly on undergraduate courses. “Our woefully inadequate law schools tend to train people to be amoral, rather than moral practitioners. Students do not enter the profession with a good grounding on who they should be.”
Professor Moorhead said lawyering had been seen by some in the past as a “license for insincerity” and just getting about getting the best results for clients.
He referred to research by Harvard University, which suggested that people who thought of themselves as professionals had much lower ethical standards than those who saw themselves as employees.
Professor Moorhead concluded that law firms needed to be encouraged to “fundamentally rethink incentives”, in areas like promotion criteria. He said incentives should be aligned so that it was “in nobody’s interest to take too big a risk”.
Although simply being a professional did not improve ethical decision-making, it did improve when people were “genuinely committed to the ideas and practice of professionals”.
He added that law firms were “behind the curve in developing their ethical infrastructure”.
During a panel discussion, Iain Miller, partner and head of regulatory law at Bevan Brittan, said: “For a number of years, we haven’t valued ethics, which feeds through from training to behaviours.”
He predicted that as the market changed and the nature of businesses changed, ethics could be a “differentiator” for some firms, which they could show how they trained staff and made decisions. “Some clients may prefer an ethical law firm. Some may not.”