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Do ethics go out the door in recessionary times?
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Do ethics go out the door in recessionary times?

How far are increased pressured of the global economy impacting the way law firms' processes work? Peter Ellender, CEO of Carter Newell lawyers, looks at the fallout of ethics in a recession.

Increased pressures from difficult trading conditions are often blamed for people taking short cuts and using expediency in their dealings when times are tough. The need to keep costs down, reduce resources and the push for increased efficiency may be interpreted in practical terms as the go-ahead to eliminate some steps or processes.  

But is this actually the case or just a convenient explanation that approximates to the facts? 

In Queensland, the Legal Services Commissioner (LSC), John Briton, has been proactively promoting ethical behaviour in the profession. One activity recently undertaken was a series of online surveys centred on ethical issues, which some firms have elected to participate in. 

It has become clear from the results tabulated that ethical behaviour is high on the agenda of the lawyers participating in the survey, but since ethical issues are rarely absolutely black and white, it is also clear that more can be done to provide a suitable framework within firms to handle ethical dilemmas on a day-to-day basis.  

The survey incorporated some realistic case studies, undoubtedly based on real life examples, which moved the thinking from the theoretical level to the practical level, which was particularly useful for junior lawyers to be exposed to the conundrums faced by partners from time to time. 

Carter Newell has from this survey been able to see both the firm’s positioning regarding ethical issues and its comparison to a wider legal industry perspective. These surveys have prompted Carter Newell, and probably a number of other participating practices, to take another look at the way all lawyers, in fact all staff, are exposed to handling ethical issues. This was no doubt an underlying intention of the LSC in promoting the surveys.  

At Carter Newell, areas being reviewed include the ethics session of the induction programs for lawyers, the wider promotion and exposure of the internal Professional Standards and Ethics Committee and an increased communication of the way in which possible client conflicts and matter conflicts are handled by the Conflicts Committee. 

Behind this is a driving force to build on the firm’s culture and ensure that all staff are not only aware of the firm’s position regarding ethical behaviour, but completely understand the framework for managing the same.

Implications of the LSC studies would suggest that ethical behaviour is high on the agenda of lawyers. However, a recently conducted international survey of over 600 compliance and business ethics professionals from professional services industries discovered that 85 per cent of respondents felt that the current economic position greatly or somewhat increased the risk of compliance and ethics failures. 

The challenge, it would seem, is for the legal profession to identify and handle ethical dilemmas and support practitioners with ethical guidance so that consumers of the industry are satisfied during recessionary times.  Regardless of economic times, law firms should apply the right ethical stance and behaviours. 

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