A moral profession

One (among a number) of the things you are not taught at Law School is the importance of morality in the practice of law.

Instead this is something that most lawyers learn later: whether during the training contract, or in legal practice. And some lawyers learn it better than others.  I have posted before, in Professional Unease, about what Bill Knight called the moral dilemma that most of us face at some stage or other in our professional careers, ‘when your client wants to do something which is legal, but which in your view is highly questionable’, and in the doing of it will be looking to you for help and advice.

Earlier in the week in the ft.com/managementblog, Stefan Stern posted about passing the parent test, referring to the remark by Stephen Hester, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, to the Treasury Select Committee: “If you asked my mother and father about my pay they would say it is too high.” Stern went on (and this is what caught my eye),

We should always be ready to explain to close family members what it is we do at work, and why. The FT columnist John Kay prefers this sort of practical morality to any sort of imposed code of behaviour. If you would be embarrassed telling friends or family about aspects your job, the chances are you should not be doing it, he has said.

This is the practical morality that Bill Knight was writing about.

The danger is failing to look beyond our formal Code of  Conduct; assuming that if our actions do not infringe the Code, they must be acceptable.  This ignores the possibility that certain behaviour may not be professional misconduct but may be professionally unethical. Having said that, the purpose behind Rule 1, as set out in the general guidance, was to ‘define the values which should shape your professional character and be displayed in your professional behaviour’: perhaps the intent behind Rule 1, and I was a member of the Committee that drafted it, has not translated into action as we had hoped. Finally, a formal Code is no guarantee either that lawyers will recognise moral dilemmas, or, having done so, will act ethically.

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