Lawyers or politicians: Which profession is perceived as more ethical?

16 November 2021 By Jerome Doraisamy

New research from Governance Institute of Australia reveals how ethical Australians perceive lawyers to be and how lawyers’ perceived ethics stacks up against other sectors.

Governance Institute of Australia has released its sixth annual Ethics Index, quantifying the Australian adult population’s perception of the overall importance of ethics and what the actual level of ethical behaviour is within Australian society.

When asked how they perceive the ethical behaviour of Australian legal professionals, just one-third (37 per cent) of respondents said they see lawyers across the country as either “somewhat ethical” or “very ethical”. The same number of respondents said they see lawyers as being “somewhat unethical” or “very unethical”, while 26 per cent were neutral.

That gave lawyers a net ethical score of zero, which marked a significant drop from the 2020 figure of +11.

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As was the case last year, lawyers ranked in the bottom 10 of all occupations, with only local and state politicians (-10), directors of foreign companies operating in Australia (-12), real estate agents (-14) and federal politicians (-22) ranking lower.

Lawyers’ perceived ethical conduct was in stark contrast to the likes of firefighters (+85), nurses (+80), ambulance workers (+79) and pharmacists (+72).

Lawyers were, however, not too far behind those in other professional services strands: mortgage brokers’ net ethical score was +9, CEOs and managing directors scored +6, and company chairs received +5.

Judges were not immune to worsening perceptions either. After receiving a net ethical score of +57 in 2020, those sitting on the bench scored +48 this year.

Interestingly, law societies – as member associations – slightly improved their perceived level of ethics from Australians, moving from +47 last year to +50 in 2021.

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Speaking to Lawyers Weekly about the drop in ethical perceptions for Lawyers, Governance Institute of Australia CEO Megan Motto (pictured) said that there has been an “overall softening” this year across many professions and sectors and that the legal profession was “clearly not immune”.

“The findings of this year’s Ethics Index should serve as a reminder that these issues need continual reinforcement and attention,” she advised.

“Ask the question: do your policies and expectations on culture and ethics reflect current community expectations or do they continue to reflect the mores of the past?”

More broadly, Ms Motto said that the results of this year’s Ethics Index – in which the overall perception of Australian society’s conduct was deemed somewhat ethical for a net score of +45, down from last year’s +52 – serve as a firm reminder that ethics, which is one of the key tenets of good governance, must stay firmly on the radar, even in times of immediate crisis.

“Even in times of turmoil, good ethics need to be upheld to help position us for what’s around the corner,” she proclaimed. 

“Good ethical conduct is especially under scrutiny by the community and other stakeholders during a crisis. It is during a crisis that your ethical or moral core is most exposed.”

Lawyers or politicians: Which profession is perceived as more ethical?
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