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.

Starting again

Welcome back, though that may not be quite the right phrase, to Lawslot.

Some 12 months ago, struggling to find time to post to both Enough Said and Lawslot, to say nothing of my original blog, Dartmoor Letters, I decided to close Lawslot. I moved its posts to Enough Said: George Wilkinson’s Blog, and determined to concentrate on that blog.

So much for good intentions. There have been two difficulties. First, Enough Said has lost focus. It is something and nothing. It has certainly been a handy escape valve for some of my grumpier thoughts, mainly political, but these sit ill with what I had always intended to be considered posts on law firm strategy and management. If your blog is a window into your world, then reading mine I am clearly the Grinch.

Secondly, I discovered Twitter, and the joy of the Twitterverse: 140 characters, immediate, and the opportunity (still to be taken forward properly) of engagement with others who share my interests and concerns.

So as Twitter took  over, my posts on Enough Said all but stopped. Work is an excuse (of sorts), but not much of one. I was also concerned with the ‘image’ thing. Having decided that I would stop blogging anonymously, I was, and remain, concerned to keep the blog as professional as possible. Ranting about some of my least favourite politicians is good for the blood pressure but, as on of my partners commented, what if clients read my blog?

Then some two months ago I read an excellent post, A Blog is a Better Social Media Hub than Twitter by Joel Postman in Social Media Today. I also revisited two posts I had bookmarked, Doug Cornelius on Why I Blog in Compliance Building, and John Naughton’s What no comments in Memex 1.1, the first blog I ever read and followed. At the time I was preparing my presentation on Client take on for a Risk Management Conference at which I had been asked to speak, and one of the key issues I was thinking about was that asked by Bill Knight in a PLC article some years ago: what do you ‘when your client wants to do something which is legal, but [which] in your view [is] highly questionable’. I posted about this in Professional unease last year.

And I decided, a slightly early New Year’s resolution, that I would revive Lawslot, as Lawslot Redux – but concentrate on legal ethics and the world in which I practice. There is, in many ways, overkill on law firms and social media, and there are a number of brilliant blogs on law firm strategy and management that I read, but with which I could not compete: Bruce MacEwen’s Adam Smith, Esq., Rob Millard’s The Adventure of Strategy, and Jordan Furlong’s Law 21. Certainly there are also blogs on legal ethics, but this is something that I have spent much of my professional career thinking about, and, when asked, speaking about – and it is time to start writing about them. I will continue both Enough Said and Dartmoor Letters (I have some stunning early Winter photos of Dartmoor) but the professional blog will be this one (again).

Where this blog will go I am still not sure: but stick with it and see.

Words matter?

It is not just lawyers in the UK that are concerned about their professional standing (see my recent post Whither the legal profession? The same is true in  Canada.

A recent post by Jordan Furlong a little over a week ago in his blog Law 21 took me to Law Times ,

“Toronto immigration and criminal law lawyer Mary Boyce submitted the motion at the [Upper Canada] law society AGM. It states that “it is demeaning to lawyers to be treated as a class of licensee.”. . . Boyce told the meeting that she first noticed the use of the term “licensee” in her member’s annual report. “For some, it seemed to be a lowering of the bar, a demeaning of the bar,” she said. “Words matter; they are our stock and trade.”

Many lawyers at the meeting voiced their concern with the change in language. Karen Andrews said she keeps a copy of the barristers’ oath at her desk. “This is fundamental to who we are and how we practise, and now it’s gone,” she said.

A lawyer who identified herself as a provincial offences prosecutor said she’s been disturbed by a recent trend of justices of the peace referring to paralegals as “officers of the court” or “friends of the court.” “We are no longer a profession,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake.”

Like Jordan Furlong

“I’m far more interested in the language used by the lawyers to describe their concerns. What’s at play here is more significant than semantics — it’s an illustration of the visceral reactions provoked when members of a group long accustomed to exclusivity and privilege suddenly find those characteristics slipping away.”

Whither the legal profession?

A stellar panel at the University of Exeter’s symposium last Monday on A Hippocratic Oath for Lawyers: Stephen Sedley, Tony Pinching, Andrew Phillips, Andrew Holroyd (the President of the Law Society), Robin Tolson (leader of the Western Circuit), Kim Economides and an introductory paper by Julius Rocca, putting the proposition in context.

The question was raised in Kim Economides’ letter to the Times,

“Should there not be some kind of Hippocratic Oath for lawyers so that, in future, lawyers’ commitment to justice and the rule of law is more than purely rhetorical?”

An excellent event, academic and professional argument at its best, and a lot to think about; and yet, sadly, very few in the audience (and no truth in the rumour that the minute size of the wine glasses the University uses for entertainment puts people off!). Does the profession care enough? The answer it seems is not enough to want to take part in evenings such as this.

The sophisticated client?

Show me the sophisticated client, and I’ll show you the opportunity to make some more money. As I wasn’t there, perhaps it is unfair to criticise, but I remain unhappy at the continuing pressure to widen the conflict rules, ostensibly to allow the sophisticated client to make the choice to instruct the lawyer who would otherwise be conflicted. Thus, from The Lawyer.com today

Clifford Chance general counsel and chairman of the City of London Law Society rules and regulation committee Chris Perrin has called for significant widening of client conflict rules at The Lawyer’s Strategic Risk Management Conference. The City of London Law Society has made proposals, which would effectively allow clients to consent to all conflicts of interest. Perrin said: “We’ve been talking about this possible change for some time. It gives sophisticated clients who know what they’re doing freedom.”

Ethics are ethics: except it seems when money is involved. It is a slippery slope.