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Lawyers spill on ethical responsibilities

Lawyers spill on ethical responsibilities

Lawyers' code of ethics varies greatly to those in other professions, a new survey into professional ethics has revealed.

LAWYERS’ code of ethics varies greatly to those in other professions, a new survey into professional ethics has revealed.

The Beaton Consulting and St James Ethics Centre study, which surveyed more then 15,000 individuals in professional business roles, found that employees give significant thought to ethical issues in their working life. 

A staggering 93 per cent of individuals believe organisations have an obligation to act ethically, even if it harms their profits. 

The survey suggests lawyers do not believe that ethical obligations to environment and community are as far reaching as those in other industries do, said Paul Quinn, executive partner who heads the corporate department of Allens Arthur Robinson and is the practice director of the firm’s Melbourne office.

Despite growing public belief and expectations that businesses have broad obligations to the community and the environment, lawyers do not believe in those ethical obligations. “For example, we as lawyers have a legal ethical duty, a duty to the court of honesty and integrity,” he said. 

But Quinn defends the profession, telling The New Lawyer this may reflect a differing terminology on the concept of ethics. 

“Most law firms do a lot of pro bono and charitable work, and so they do a lot of community work … but the view of lawyers is to spend the effort where you get more bang for your buck. And that’s doing legal advice on a pro bono basis. 

“It may be that lawyers have the same community approach but they call it something different,” Quinn said. 

Contrary to this, lawyers believed their firms were acting ethically internally. The professional ranks high in terms of “doing the right thing”, Quinn said. “So it was a little inconsistent.”

Lawyers generally felt their internal systems were good in terms of resolving ethical issues. Quinn noted that most large firms, at least, have ethics committees and pro bono groups that drive ethical activity internally and via pro bono work. 

“Where the divergence seemed to happen was their obligation beyond that, to their community obligations.”

According to Rosemary Sainty, head of the responsible business project at St James Ethics Centre, who lead the development of the public report, “the obligations of businesses and other organisations are no longer seen in isolation from the communities in which they operate, the employees they depend upon, the environment from which they draw their resources and the marketplace in which they participate”. 

Responses, which came from lawyers, accountants and other professional groups, suggested that many organisations may need some guidance on their ethical duties.

“For lawyers, doctors, real estate agents … we not only need watchdogs to catch those who had acted unethically, but also guide dogs to help those who are facing an ethical dilemma,” said one respondent to the survey.  

The ethics of imposing excessive working hours on employees is the biggest blot of professional services’ ethical landscape in Australia, including in law firms, accounting firms and banking, the survey reveals. 

“In imposing unreasonable working hours, the heart of our community is being ripped out,” it reports.

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