Junior lawyers want the right to refuse work on certain matters for ethical reasons – but few firms provide that choice, according to a new report exploring culture and ethics
In World in motion: Why the legal profession cannot stand still, Obelisk Support, headed by solicitor Dana Denis-Smith, also says a pushback is starting against profit per equity partner as a measure of success.
Nearly two-thirds of 72 junior lawyers surveyed for the report said employers should allow them to refuse to work on certain matters for ethical reasons, but only 18% said their current employer let them. Just over half felt able to challenge management if they believed they were being asked to do something they considered unethical.
A roundtable discussion for the report heard that a solicitor who is a lifelong vegan is allowed to refuse to work for a fishing company.
Respondents were evenly split on whether their employer was doing what it should to address the challenges presented by climate change. A quarter were unsure.
Nearly half of survey respondents said some organisations are guilty of window dressing when it comes to tackling ethical issues. However, half said their own employer had a purpose beyond profitability.
The report concludes that businesses are now in the era of ‘show, not tell’. For instance, a general counsel visiting a law firm that had a parental leave policy demanded to be taken round the office and introduced to those who had taken advantage of the policy. ‘Could you meet a challenge like that?’ the report asks.
PEP will remain the metric that many law firm partners look at first, but ‘it has been suggested that PEP should be recast as people, environment and purpose first’, the report says.
Denis-Smith said: ‘Legal sector organisations and in-house legal teams seeking to attract and retain talented employees cannot simply up junior lawyers’ pay. They need to consider the values of the organisation and its purpose. That means implementing diversity initiatives, considering environmental and sustainability credentials, and looking at the suppliers they use. For law firms and other legal services providers, it means considering which clients they are prepared to act for and the pro bono work they undertake.’
The report quotes Matthew Hill, chief executive of the Legal Services Board, as saying: ‘Lawyers play an absolutely key role in underpinning a safe and civilised modern democracy, and how lawyers go about their business has a major influence on public confidence. And yet, there is an undoubted perception – fuelled by things like the Post Office scandal, increased public awareness of the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up misconduct in the workplace, and weaknesses in sanctions and anti-money laundering compliance – that this role is not always front and centre for all legal professionals.’
The issue of changing generational attitudes to client duties was a significant theme at the recent International Bar Association conference in Paris. However, the association parked for reconsideration proposals for changes to the International Principles on Conduct for the Legal Profession that would require lawyers to consider the wider social implications of acting for clients.
The proposals emerged from an IBA programme to examine the role of lawyers as ‘ethical gatekeepers’ but came under heavy criticism, including from the chair of the bar of England and Wales.