If your mother would slap you, then you’ve acted unethically.
That was the message the legal services commissioner tried to impress on delegates at the Practice Management NSW conference last week.
Commissioner Steve Mark (pictured) and Tahlia Gordon, Research and Project Coordinator at the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner, spoke on ethics at the event held in the Grace Hotel, Sydney, on 24 May. Mark claimed the law provides little guidance on ethics and, on occasion, the two are in opposition.
“People who look to a rulebook to answer an ethical problem aren’t going to find it,” he said.
Ethics are the product of personal values, he continued.
“Our values – which come from ethnic, social, religious and economic cultures, as well as our upbringing – will drive our ethics and help us through difficult scenarios.”
One of the scenarios Mark put to delegates was a typical cost agreement that charged clients in six-minute units. He asked whether an ethical dilemma arises if a lawyer charges a six-minute unit for a one-minute phone call, or bills a client separately for tasks performed simultaneously.
Mark pointed out that there is no rule to prevent a lawyer from doing either. Instead of looking to the law for answers, he advised lawyers in the room to consider whether the actions align with their personal values.
“One of the biggest problems we have is that some practitioners think it is their duty to leave their values at the front door of the office and go in and practice law,” he said.
“You think you’re making nice black-and-white decisions, and your clients think you’re weird because they have no connection with their reality.”
The scenario ignited debate on whether time-based billing encourages unethical practices. The practicality of fixed pricing for legal services was also raised by one delegate.
According to Mark, a high billable hour expectation is just one of the pressures that may cause a lawyer to act unethically. To avoid an office culture seen to condone unethical behaviour, firms must promote moral awareness through regular communication, he added.
“In law firms, the culture the firm promotes will give rise to people developing moral awareness within the practice of law.
“This ends up reducing complaints against lawyers, which is in our interest, your interest and the interest of the public.”
The Office of the Legal Commissioner receives around 9000 calls to its enquiry line and 2700 written complaints against legal professionals each year.