THE BEHAVIOUR of large law firm lawyers is on the agenda, set to be investigated and addressed by the New South Wales Office of the Legal Services Commissioner.
The Office of the Legal Services Commission (OLSC) has been developing a study to gauge the ethical structures, attitudes and behaviours of lawyers within the state’s largest firms.
The Office has been working on preparing an Australian Research Council grant in conjunction with Monash University, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland and the University of Adelaide to develop the study.
This week the OLSC said the study should identify how large firms work to support or encourage ethical practice among individual lawyers, as well as work teams within the firm.
It will delve into what countervailing pressures firms face that may diminish ethical practice.
Firms will be encouraged to assist by allowing interviews with their most senior people in charge of ethics policies and structures about what influences ethical practice at the firm.
They’ll be pressed about what influences ethical practice and what structures are in place to deal with them.
Formal interviews are also expected with the Legal Services Commissioners in NSW, Victoria and Queensland in order to establish their expectations of large law firms.
The investigation comes after NSW Legal Services Commission Steve Mark told the Australian Lawyers Alliance conference last month that he had been deeply concerned by the prospect of law firm incorporation, first permitted in 2001, and that firms would focus more on profit than professionalism.
“I feared that law firms would adopt unethical business practices and the possibility of equity ownership through listing would enhance incentives for the legal profession to behave in ways that would undermine their professional obligations set out in the Act, Rules and the Regulations.
“My fear was not uncommon. Similar concerns have been expressed about the possibility of incorporation thwarting the legal professions ethical obligations and responsibilities,” he said.
The study aims to concentrate on a number of ethical areas, identify how mechanisms like professional regulation and discipline, professional education and professional liability insurance, including risk management, might be aimed at promoting ethical practice within some larger law firms.
The OLSC said it hoped the project would help identify appropriate management systems and other mechanisms for ethical practice in firms.
As well, it would help develop legal and enforcement strategies for making sure these are put in place in incorporated law firms.
But Mark himself admitted his fears about integrated legal practices (ILPs) were unwarranted.
He said at the conference that according to the results of a study conducted by his office in conjunction with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, complaints about ILPs have not increased in spite of their changes business practices.
“Most encouragingly from our perspective, the research revealed that 63 per cent of ILPs were prompted to make substantive systems changes as a result of engaging in the self-assessment process.
“This process is therefore more than a ‘tick a box exercise’ — the research shows that the majority of legal practitioners engage in the process seriously and diligently.
“The imposition of a management methodology upon the delivery of legal services has enabled ILPs to provide a quality service efficiently and cost effectively, without compromising their professional responsibilities,” Mark said.
The OLSC has the power to discipline and even remove the practicing certificate of such a solicitor director if they fail to meet their responsibilities.
“In establishing the rules for management systems we are attempting to embed ethical behaviour in management systems,” Mark said.
The OLSC’s application is to be lodged this month and seeks funding for a period of four years.
Lawyers Weekly will report on the results of this application