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ACLA 2010: Dodgy clients should be dropped

ACLA 2010: Dodgy clients should be dropped

Lawyers have been told they have no duty to act for "repugnant" clients.During a discussion about ethics at the ACLA Conference this morning (12 November) Murray Landis, a partner at Middletons,…

Lawyers have been told they have no duty to act for "repugnant" clients.

During a discussion about ethics at the ACLA Conference this morning (12 November) Murray Landis, a partner at Middletons, argued that case as part of a four-member panel that addressed the topic of managing ethical dilemmas and commercial reality.

"Clients come and go, and matters come and go," Landis said. "But if you believe you have chosen your career as a professional for good and valid reasons, then there are some things that go with that which require standards of conduct that go beyond the ordinary commercial marketplace."

Landis acknowledged that in-house lawyers are often put in positions where "more is expected when compared to the many executives to whom you report and [for whom] you act," but that is part of the professional burden a lawyer carries with them.

"When you are out there negotiating deals and are not within the curfew of the court directly, in a sense, the responsibility on you is even higher, to adhere to the standards of conduct that are appropriate to a lawyer," he said.

"It is very hard, because we often get appeals to act in ways that are commercial, and I often think that appeals to be commercial are nothing more than masquerading in greed and self-interest."

Facilitated by Jane Walton, the principal of the Walton Group, the panel also included former Clayton Utz partner and now AMP general counsel and company secretary Brian Salter, and Helen Conway, general manager - office of the CEO, company secretary and general counsel of Caltex Australia Group.

Walton, a founder of the St James Ethics Centre, said that "as lawyers, we are taught to think well" and she encouraged the audience to "bring that good thinking to everything that we do".

"Only then, as you acknowledge the difficulties and the greyness of some of the decisions that we make can you be a true leader and be of value to your client," she added.

Walton made the point that "the law can be outside the moral universe" and that at times we may believe that the law is unethical.

"I am told that the Legal Profession Act in NSW is one of the largest acts in the world now," she said. "I cannot understand that. As we try as lawyers to pin down behaviours and legislate for doing the right thing for professionalism and for honour, it is not possible.

"These are personal choices that we must make."

Helen Conway acknowledged that whether you are in private practice or corporate practice, at some point during your career you will have to deal with some very significant issues.

"Once you know and are very clear on what your personal values are, you actually have to have the courage to act in accordance with those values", Conway said.

She acknowledged the inevitability that this will bring you into conflict with people, but that the "real skill" is to work collaboratively with people to influence them.

"General counsel have a responsibility for leadership," she added. "They set the tone. The way a legal department is treated in a company is very much a function of the leader of that department."

Conway said that if a legal department has "respect and stature and standing within an organisation" and its members are honest and courageous, it will assist in your ability to work collaboratively with people.

Brian Salter, AMP general counsel, spoke about the relationship between professional values and organisational culture. He said that as a private practice lawyer, he "relentlessly" engaged in the pursuit of his clients' interests, and that as a "black letter lawyer", the law determined for him what was permissible and not permissible.

"It is a completely different debate inside my organisation [AMP]," Salter said. "For me, culture comes to the heart of many, many things, because that drives how the organisation behaves on a daily basis and the decisions it makes.

"As a lawyer, while I can establish the broad parameters, I can then get involved in the debate with all my other members of the executive team about whether or not we should or shouldn't do something."

>> Click here to read Lawyers Weekly's full coverage of the ACLA National Conference 2010

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