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Morality at the core of being a good lawyer

27 March 2015

The large majority of British lawyers favour virtuous legal practice, a recent study by Birmingham University’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues shows. The researchers surveyed 966 British lawyers and aspiring lawyers at various stages of their careers.

It found that the character strengths of judgement, perseverance, perspective and fairness were deemed most important in an “ideal” lawyer by respondents across all career stages.

Judgement and honesty were selected by 84% of solicitors and 93% of barristers. Fairness and perseverance appeared in the top six choices for respondents selecting both ideal qualities and personal qualities. The majority viewed morality as being at the core of being a good lawyer.

Some concerns

Some respondents, however, expressed concerns about moral standards in the profession as a whole, for example in relation to tax law. The vast majority of lawyers at all career stages indicated that they would perform dutifully in their responses to the ethical dilemmas.

However, 16% of experienced solicitors indicated that they would take “guidance” from senior colleagues on “rounding up” billing hours, even when it might be regarded as fraudulent.

The findings indicate some constraints and anxieties about the maintenance of a virtuous character in the practice of law.

Commercial factors were most frequently cited by those in practice as pressures, but the positive influence of good role models was considered effective in helping to deal with them.

Organisational influence

The research provides some guidance for law firms and chambers.

“Law firms, chambers and those responsible for systems, management and risk need to be aware of the influence of their organisation on ethical practice,” the research report says.

Senior lawyers who share their “tricky professional ethical issues” or senior partners who talk about behaviour being “just as important as the profit element” provide models of ethical character.

“Their contribution to the ethos of the organisation should be highlighted as much, if not more, as those making the biggest deals.

“Such role modelling and the ways it can improve business culture and ethos should be supported throughout firms, with those responsible for training embedding goals of positive professional behaviour in training programmes.

“Supervisors of trainees or lead roles in informal workplace learning have less status than their role requires, and they should be exemplars of best practice.

“Working with senior role models, they provide an important route to creating opportunities for reflecting on ethics and practising ethically. The status of such supervisors must be enhanced.”

Important learning place

The workplace is an important place of learning, the report notes. That is where the relative emphasis on commercial behaviour in what constitutes being a lawyer is worked out in practice.

“The workplace is where learning occurs by doing, watching and asking questions.” As one solicitor respondent said: “nothing quite prepares you for law like actually working in a solicitor’s office”.

The importance of the firm is evident – as shown in the response from a solicitor who said: “You learn about your ethics [in the workplace], as long as you’ve got a good training institution, the firm that you’re at is a good firm, [and] they will teach you”.

Role modelling is also important, and a major learning is from the character of colleagues.

Formal and effective aspects of workplace learning mentioned by respondents were supervisors and mentors but it was suggested that they frequently lack status within the workplace.

Ethics in the marketplace

The report also provides commentary on the relationship between ethics (including professional standards) and the competitive marketplace.

“Replacing ‘client’ with ‘consumer’ re-frames the expert-client relationship dependent on integrity and trust as an exchange relationship in the market.

“While competition can certainly aid accountability and contribute to professional standards, we are not persuaded that it is the most effective way to deliver all the regulatory objectives.”

One concern the report highlighted was that markets and competition as an all-purpose solution means, to quote Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, “belief in the power of the market enters the realm of faith”.1

Danger for profession

“Unbalanced promotion of competition carries dangers for the legal sector and can risk its standards of ethical practice,” the report said.

“Competition needs to be secured without price and exchange becoming the basis of values.

“A market society can lead to the commodification of legal services and be destructive of legal ethics.

“Worse than removing the personal and relational dimension to lawyer-client relations, however, is allowing price, competition and deal-making to be the principal tests of success.

“This can alter the character of a profession, a message so recently provided by the banking sector.2

“The evidence of this study suggests there is no immediate risk of this occurring in the legal services sector.

“There is a need to ensure, however, that all its members and organisations have a firm commitment to, and a clear understanding of, virtuous practice and that education and training and organisational and professional cultures act together to sustain ‘good law’.”

‘Top six’ Virtues of the ‘Ideal’ Lawyer

 

1st year law student

%

Solicitors

%

Barristers

%

The ‘Ideal’ lawyer

Judgement

13

Judgement

14

Judgement

16

 

Perserverance

11

Honesty

14

Honesty

15

 

Perspective

10

Perserverance

10

Perserverance

12

 

Fairness

9

Perspective

10

Fairness

9

 

Social intelligence

8

Fairness

10

Bravery

8

 

Leadership

7

Teamwork

6

Perspective

7

As % of all choices

 

58

 

64

 

67

Recommendations

The report makes four main recommendations:

  • more time is needed for ethics education in undergraduate courses and in vocational training;
  • ethics education for the legal profession needs to embrace a variety of ethical theories, including virtue ethics, if students are to make sense of the moral nuances of being a good lawyer;
  • the contribution of lawyers who are models of ethical character, reasoning and action need highlighting in the post-qualification training and CPD of lawyers, as much as those bringing commercial success; and
  • greater attention must be given in legal practice to the influence of informal learning on workplace culture. Senior staff, role models and supervisors should work together to provide more opportunities for reflecting on ethics in their workplace.

The full report, Virtuous Character for the Practice of Law, is at www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/1553/projects/gratitude-britain/virtuous-character-law.

  1. Carney, M (2014) Inclusive Capitalism: Creating a Sense of the Systemic, [online], available at: www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2014/speech731.pdf.
  2. Llewellyn, D T, Steare, R, Trevellick, J and Wildman, A (2014) Virtuous Banking Placing Ethos and Purpose at the Heart of Finance, London: ResPublica.
 

Last updated on the 17th March 2016