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President's column

20 March 17

As modern legal practice throws up new questions and challenges in relation to professional ethics, should we be more ready to discuss these among ourselves as a means of providing mutual support?

by Eilidh Wiseman

Later this month, I will have the opportunity to address a legal audience drawn from across the Commonwealth on the topic of professionalism and ethics. As solicitors we pride ourselves on our professional ethics. Ethical practice underpins all of our work and is a hallmark of our profession. Clients expect us to put their interests ahead of our own, that their affairs will be treated confidentially, and that we will not act in conflicts. We also have duties beyond our clients in our roles as officers of the court. This is – or should be – part of every solicitor’s professional DNA.

Threats to professional ethics are hardly a new phenomenon. But as practice becomes more complex, so do the challenges we face to uphold professional standards. What can we do to ensure that we have the tools at our disposal to combat these threats?

Questions for today

Four developments stand out over the last decade:

  • Many jurisdictions increasingly focus professional development activities on certain types of professional behaviour (e.g. anti-money laundering). To what extent is this to the detriment of a focus on principles and ethics? Should training on technical compliance be infused with discussions of independence, integrity and professional judgment?
  • Some firms have “insourced” professional obligations to specialist compliance staff. There are recent studies which have suggested that an unintended consequence of this approach can be to devalue and de-personalise individual responsibility, creating a feeling that professional ethics are for “other people”. Does this sound familiar at all?
  • The intensification of the “more for less” culture has been felt across the profession – not least in-house. Is there a tension between corporate responsibilities and professional obligations? How best can in-house lawyers resolve such conflicts?
  • In some areas, there are questions about whether solicitors have effectively become regulated by their clients. The line between “client closeness” and “client capture” is blurry. It could be argued that this is simply a matter of contract and negotiation. It could also be that this creates a systemic risk to the profession and undermines the public perception of the profession. Does our traditional understanding of independence account for the realities of today’s legal practice?

Time to be more open

With increasing pressures across all strands of the legal profession, it is more important than ever that the principles of independence, integrity and professional judgment are at the heart of what we do.

Given the importance we place on professional ethics, how often do we discuss ethical difficulties and their impact upon us as professionals and as people? I fear the answer is not often enough. We are rightly proud of our professional standards, but they are challenging. We need to make sure that, as a profession, we support each other to live up to the expectations of our clients, society, and ourselves.

As ever, I would welcome your thoughts on these issues.

Until next month,
Eilidh

Eilidh Wiseman is President of the Law Society of Scotland – president@lawscot.org.uk; Twitter: @eilidh_wiseman 

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