Michael Dolan has successfully rolled out ethics4lawyers, a new business which aims to help Australian legal practitioners face the often “complicated, difficult, and urgent ethical challenges in their daily work whether in private practice, in-house, or in government”.
Bringing with him a 45-year career, including most recently as a senior ethics solicitor at the Law Institute of Victoria, Mr Dolan said the subject of ethics has become an increasing challenge in the practice of law, hence the reason for his launch of ethics4lawywers.
“It’s a time of rapid change in the profession and I think we now see ourselves as part of that change,” Mr Dolan told Lawyers Weekly.
“For many years the law societies have provided many services to their members but between the four of us we’ve got nearly 25 years’ experience in this area of ethics and related issues, such as CPD training, and we felt it was time to concentrate on that, not worry about anything else and give it a go on our own and really be part of that change, so I think that’s been the big driver for it.
“We’re very excited about it. In fact, I’m really surprised in some ways that the take-up has been so quick and so enthusiastic from members in the profession and we haven’t really gone out in a really big way to market it yet.”
Mr Dolan said his business model aims to be, flexible, simple and easy to understand.
“We will do straight ethics CPD compliance training for a fee, and that’s a one-hour seminar, and that might be 10 solicitors, 30 solicitors or 80 solicitors,” he explained.
“I was in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and I did a seminar there for a firm at their head office but ended up video conferencing and doing the seminar to about 80 solicitors right across the country, so that’s an example of one of the bigger ones. Last week I did a small suburban firm in the city with 10 solicitors, and that worked for them face-to-face.
“The way we do the ethics training is in some ways unique I think as well. We don’t just stand up and lecture, we actually use real-life ethics scenarios and we workshop them with the audience so we get them to talk to each other about what the issues are and then widen that conversation and guide them to look for what’s the answer, because in many ethical situations the answer is not black and white. We’ve found over the years of doing this that the audiences particularly like that because it brings it home to them.”
Mr Dolan said there are many common ethical issues that arise in the practice of law, some of which lawyers are unsure how to deal with. It is this challenge that ethics4lawyers aims to combat, by advising legal professionals on the best way to move forward.
“Conflict of interest is a big one and it’s been around for a long time. The classic situation is that you’ll have acted for someone 10 years ago, now someone wants me to act against them – can I do that?,” he said.
“Concurrent client conflict is the same – two people come in, want you to do something then in the course of doing that they fall out. What’s the situation? Do you have to withdraw and stop acting for both of them? In most cases the answer is yes but those situations can crop up quite quickly and they need a quick answer to deal with it before they get themselves in trouble.
“Confidentiality is a big one. I’ve had a number of calls over the years where I’ve had a solicitor call and say: ‘I've got the police in my office, they've got a search warrant, they want 20 client files, what do I do?’ In fact in one instance they even put the police officer onto me and I had to tell him about what he could and couldn’t do. That’s a stressful one.
“… That’s the kind of service that we’re providing and one of the advantages I think of being a private law firm is that we set our own hours, we can take calls out of hours, which we’ll do and give people the advice when they really need it.”
Mr Dolan noted that the business is so far being approached by solicitors of all ages and levels of experience.
“It’s across the board. I got a call from a 92-year-old solicitor, and he had a particular problem. It often happens where solicitors will call up and say: ‘I think I know the answer but I just want to check it’.
“One of the things I always say in this case is: ‘Never, ever sweat an ethics problem alone. Talk to a colleague, talk to a friend who’s also a lawyer or call up an ethics lawyer and get some advice about it’, because it can be very worrying and very stressful so share that burden.
“Very often it’s a case of just them wanting confirmation that what they thought about it is the right thing to do and I’m very happy to offer that to them.
“I think sole practices and small practices tend to be the ones who need the advice perhaps more than the larger practices. Most of the big national and international firms have their own internal ethics people and their own internal ethics committees, particularly in areas of conflict of interest and things like that, so they’ll have very senior lawyers in the firm whose day job is to assist all the others in the firm. Having said that we do get calls from those within very large firms, and we do and have done seminars for both national and international firms over the years.”
On his advice to others looking to start their own business, Mr Dolan said to find something you’re passionate about and the rest will follow accordingly.
“I’ve been practising ethics for a long time. I think it is really terribly important in the practice of law, and I think we should never lose sight of it. I tell all my seminar audiences ‘everything to do in legal practice you should look at through ethics-tinted glasses and that way you’ll get it right and won’t find yourself in trouble’,” he said.
“When you are passionate about something and you get the opportunity to follow that passion I think grab it. I’m an older practitioner now and I’ve got in one sense I suppose the luxury of being able to do that. I could be out playing golf or playing bridge or doing whatever you do but I just love doing this stuff, so my advice would be if there’s something you’re really passionate about doing, as a practitioner, don’t be put off by the fact that you might be advanced a few years or whatever, give it a go.
“Get out there. As long as you enjoy going to work in the morning, do it and just have confidence within yourself.”