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Iain Miller

Partner, Bevan Brittan

Book review: Cautionary tales: Lessons in ethics for lawyers

Book review: Cautionary tales: Lessons in ethics for lawyers


A novel approach to legal ethics may save law firms big compliance headaches, writes Iain Miller

A novel approach to legal ethics may save law firms big compliance headaches, writes Iain Miller

For many years law firm regulation has been labeled as 'compliance'. The concept of compliance developed in other service sectors where there was no pre-existing professional ethos. The lack of ethos is compensated for by a series of tick boxes and procedures. This ensures compliance, or at least, reduces the risk of non-compliance.

It is slightly odd that this compliance approach became all encompassing in law firms where there had been a professional ethos and an established set of principles that formed the basis of legal ethics. While compliance has certainly been effective in many aspects of how firms regulated themselves, it is not the complete solution.

A compliance-based approach only goes so far in giving lawyers the tools to make the right decisions or at least the best decisions. Making the best ethical decisions is not just an imperative for the individual, it is also part of the reputational management of a law firm. A firm where there is poor ethical awareness is at a much higher risk of having its reputation damaged and is likely to be less attractive to corporate clients who increasingly value ethical behaviour.

As well as these difficulties, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is also increasingly interested in ethical behavior. The opening section of the SRA's competence statement, which provides a framework for CPD, includes a requirement to: 'Act honestly and with integrity…including: recognising ethical issues and exercising effective judgment in addressing them; understanding and applying the ethical concepts which govern their role and behaviour as a lawyer; …. resisting pressure to condone, ignore or commit unethical behavior.'

The SRA's proposal to simplify the current regulatory framework will increase the need to recognise ethical issues and exercise effective judgment as it is less likely that the code of conduct will provide a detailed answer.

In the light of these developments, Francis Dingwall's new book, Cautionary Tales: lessons in ethics for lawyers, could not be better timed. Francis has extensive experience in dealing with the practical ethical issues that arise in law firms, particularly in his current role as a member of Legal Risk, one of the leading firms that advise law firms on regulatory and ethical issues.

The key to legal ethics is understanding how to approach real life practical problems. Sometimes there is a right answer which may seem obvious but is overlooked in a complex sea of relationships and events. On other occasions there is no right answer only the least worst answer. The book takes, literally, a novel approach in seeking to illustrate these issues. Within the book are four short stories which are written as a fictional account of a particular factual scenario where one or more legal ethical dilemmas arise.

The first story deals with the issues that arise where the solicitor acts on a joint retainer for two client in the acquisition of a business. The fictional story sets out in a readable form the problems that can arise.

The second story focuses on the perennial problem of partner behavior and how it can lead to difficulties, while the third moves onto the question of who really is responsible when a simple administrative error causes enormous difficulties. The mistake of sending the wrong letter (or email) to the wrong person is a perennial problem in law firms and can have huge repercussions.

The final story touches upon the often complex world of referrals and the difficulties that arise if a solicitor gains a financial benefit whilst being oblivious to whether the referral is in the best interest of the referred. We often underestimate how much we are trusted by individuals and the damage that is caused when we betray that trust.

The value of the book is that it recognises that legal ethics is more than just a series of steps that can be plotted from a set of rules. It is about real life situations. By crafting the scenarios of each story in a very readable way, Francis has brought each situation to life and in doing so will engage the interest of the reader. This book is an excellent read for those seeking to explore the real life practicalities of legal ethical issues.

Iain Miller is head of regulation at Bevan Brittan and general editor of Cordery on Legal Services

Cautionary tales: Lessons in ethics for lawyers by Francis Dingwall is available by contacting at £10.00 including delivery