The “unbalanced promotion of competition” in the legal services market “carries dangers” and puts ethical standards at risk, a major report based on a survey of 966 solicitors and barristers has concluded.
Implementation of the changes contained in the Legal Services Act should be accompanied by “debate about their ethical implications” to avoid damaging justice, the report by Birmingham University said.
“Replacing ‘client’ with ‘consumer’ reframes the expert-client relationship, dependent on integrity and trust, as an exchange relationship in the market.”
The study argued that “while competition can certainly aid accountability and contribute to professional standards”, it was not the ‘most effective way to deliver all the regulatory objectives’ – a phrase taken from an interview with representatives of the Legal Services Board.
The study, entitled Virtuous Character for the Practice of Law, was produced by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, based at Birmingham University’s education department.
It argued that commoditising legal services could be “destructive of legal ethics”, and that, worse than removing the personal element to lawyer-client relations, is “allowing price, competition and deal-making to be the principal tests of success”.
The report said that codes of conduct “inevitably fail to cover all eventualities” and a broader perspective on ‘good law’ should contribute to “rethinking the content” of undergraduate degrees.
“Undergraduate courses on ethics can be exciting and innovative opportunities for study. Consideration of ethical principles and the virtues of ‘good law’ can help embed a broad conception of what the law means.”
The report recommended that law schools “do more to help students make an informed choice about the area of law they may wish to practice”, so their career paths were better matched to their ethical preferences.
“Earlier and greater emphasis on the wider ethical context of legal practice can better prepare individuals for the pressures of the workplace. As a crucible for shaping ethical behaviour and sentiment, local communities of professional practice are often viewed as more influential than compliance systems.”
The report warned that if workplace culture was “skewed towards commercial reward”, then what constituted ‘good law’ could be “dubiously redefined”.
Law firms and chambers should be aware of the influence of their organisation on ethics, but supervisors of legal trainees had “less status than their role requires”.
“Working with senior role models, they provide an important route to creating opportunities for reflecting on ethics and practicing ethically. The status of such supervisors must be enhanced.”