Time to look with more sophistication at ethics?

It’s very nice to be able to mark my move to UCL this week with a new publication, Designing Ethics Indicators for Legal Services Provision (not my snappiest title I confess), with my fellow authors Victoria Hinchly (Cardiff); Christine Parker (Monash); Soren Holm (Manchester) and David Kershaw (LSE). As Chris Kenny says in launching the report:

“It’s easy to talk about professional ethics. But the truth is that the integrity of individual practitioners and the ethical infrastructure of their organisations, is crucial for maintaining public confidence in the rule of law as well as for protecting consumers.

“Regulators, professional bodies and professionals need to better understand the drivers for ethical behaviour and be able to track changes in a way that goes beyond what the report rightly characterises as the ’anecdote and argument’ of past discussions.

“That’s why we welcome the focus on ethics in the Legal Education and Training Review and also welcome this very thorough and imaginative report. It is a sound basis not just for further debate but for solid action to pursue the issues it raises. We look forward to discussing the way ahead with approved regulators and others over the coming months.”

Of course it is not easy, even possible in any definitive sense, to ‘measure’ ethics but it is possible to develop deeper understandings which can aid firms as they manage their own service and regulators as they seek to protect the public interest.  The report shows how tools can be developed that marry indicators of the ethicality of behaviour, with a deeper understanding of the three Cs: character (our own values); context (the incentives and cultures within legal service providers, markets and professions); and capacity (knowledge and reasoning abilities in relation to ethical problems).   

Whilst liberalisation of the legal services markets is one pressing reason for developing a greater understanding of professional ethics (and indeed ethics in the unregulated sector), it is worth remembering that recent ethical controversies have not always or even mainly arisen under emerging business models.  Whilst the press likes to concentrate on the issues posed by no win no fee agreements, more traditional and elite providers have not found themselves immune to difficulties.  Hackgate, Standard Chartered Bank and a few well publicised problems with partners in big firms with even bigger client and expense accounts remind us that there is a growing need to think longer and harder about how the profession maintains its mandate as protector of the administration of justice.  That after all is ultimately the only reason for giving lawyers professional status at all.


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