Legal services sector needs new 'ethical dashboard'

Legal News | 5 September 2012

Richard_Moorhead_UCL

Ethics benchmarking essential to maintaining confidence in the profession at times of dramatic change

Structural changes to the legal services sector call for greater emphasis on the role of professional ethics and the development of specific tracking tools for stakeholders, a senior academic has said.

In a report commissioned by the Legal Services Board, director of UCL’s centre of ethics and law Richard Moorhead (pictured) said the growing recognition by lawyers of the importance of upholding ethics was only matched by the lack of scientific data about how this can be managed and monitored.

Moving away from anecdotal evidence and complaints or infractions statistics, the ‘Designing Ethics Indicators for Legal Services Provision’ report advocates creating a dashboard of indicators looking at behaviour as well as at character values, context and individual ethical capacity – the “3Cs”.

This would assess the disposition of individual providers to regard something as ethical or unethical, what incentives are in place within the infrastructure in which individuals work, including the prevalent culture of a firm or market, and how individuals and organisations recognise and reason on decisions.

The approach suggested by the report would include setting up interviews with a representative selection of practitioners to identify ethical issues they regard as important before collecting data and indicators on the 3Cs via further surveys of the profession, consumers and regulators.

“It is not easy, even possible in any definitive sense, to ‘measure’ ethics but it is possible to develop deeper understandings which can aid firms as they manage their own service and regulators as they seek to protect the public interest,” Moorhead said on his blog.

He went on: “Tools can be developed that marry indicators of the ethicality of behaviour, with a deeper understanding of the three Cs: character (our own values); context (the incentives and cultures within legal service providers, markets and professions); and capacity (knowledge and reasoning abilities in relation to ethical problems).”

The liberalisation of the legal services markets has prompted particular concerns over a drop in professional standards as new non-lawyer owned businesses start offering legal services.

But Moorhead said the issue wasn’t solely about new entrants and affected larger commercial firms which have traditionally been seen as able to behave more ethically.

“There is a growing need to think longer and harder about how the profession maintains its mandate as protector of the administration of justice,” he said. “That after all is ultimately the only reason for giving lawyers professional status at all.”

LSB chief executive Chris Kenny welcomed the report, saying it was easy to talk about professional ethics “but the truth is that the integrity of individual practitioners and the ethical infrastructure of their organisations, is crucial for maintaining public confidence in the rule of law as well as for protecting consumers.”

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