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Majority of UK lawyers ‘struggle’ with moral ethics

Failures in ethics education at universities and law firms 'the weak link', research finds 

25 November 2014

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Sixty per cent of UK legal professionals find it hard to 'do the right thing' in their job, according to a report being launched by Lord Neuberger today.

The research found that the majority of legal professionals struggle with moral ethics during their careers.

"There is concern within the sector that not all members of the profession are committed to, and have an understanding of, morally good practice," said Professor Hywel Thomas at the Jubilee Centre and principal investigator for the report.

"With recent cuts to the Legal Aid budget adding to demands on the moral character of lawyers, this understanding of ethical practice is more important than ever.

"Our research suggests that the weak link may be the lack of focus on ethics within undergraduate law courses and in informal workplace learning.

"That is why the Jubilee Centre is recommending a review of ethics education within the legal profession."

This research was carried out between September 2012 and October 2014 through an e-survey of 943 law students, solicitors and barristers, in addition to interviews with selected respondents, educators and regulators.

The research found that morality, judgement, perseverance, perspective and fairness are the personal attributes rated above all others within the legal profession.

Judgement and honesty are considered to be important characteristics of a good lawyer by 84 per cent of solicitors and 93 per cent of barristers.

However, 16 per cent of solicitors said they would be prepared to accept guidance from a colleague to 'round-up' billing hours, even if this may be regarded as fraudulent.

In addition, five per cent of experienced solicitors said they would not report misuse of clients' accounts.

Commercial factors were cited as key pressures by those in practice, but the influence of good role models was considered effective in helping to deal with them.

The report expresses concern about the future of moral standards within the profession.

It asserts that little emphasis is placed on formal and informal ethics education within universities and law firms, and argues that greater attention to ethics education could hold the key to improved standards throughout the industry.

It recommends that greater time should be given for ethics education in undergraduate courses and vocational training. This ethics education should embrace a variety of ethical theories, including virtue ethics, it says.

It also recommends giving greater attention to the influence of informal learning on law firm culture.

"Senior staff, role models and supervisors should work together to provide more opportunities for reflecting on ethics in their workplace," it says.

The report is being launched tonight by Lord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court.



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