The report looks at the relationships between in-house lawyers’ role, professional orientations, team cultures, organisational pressures, ethical infrastructure and ethical inclination. It is based on a survey of 400 in-house lawyers working in public, third and commercial sectors.
We think that the report provides a unique profile of real differences within the in-house community. We examine individual and team orientations to the in-house role; the invocation of professional principles; and ethical infrastructure, ethical pressure and relationships with the employer. It is as rich a picture of what it means to be an ethical in-house lawyer as has ever been attempted.
Through this research the report profiles the characteristics of individuals, teams and environments most associated with a stronger or weaker propensity to behave ethically. It is important to emphasise that this mapping of the ‘moral compass’ of in-house lawyers shows that ethicality is associated with individual and professional notions of the in-house role but also with team orientations and the broader organisational environment. Ethicality is both a systemic and individual phenomenon.
The report notes that the systemic lesson is important: there is too much emphasis in legal circles on thinking that ethics is about being the right sort of individual. That kind of thinking is complacent and dangerous.
The report shows that individuals, systems and cultures mesh together in meaningful and measurable ways to increase or reduce ethical risk. As numerous corporate scandals have shown, such ethical risk puts individual lawyers at risk of professional misconduct but it also encourages poor quality decision-making for the organisations that employ in-house lawyers: short-termism and sharp practice can lead to catastrophic error.
Some initial findings at a glance:
- 400 respondents
- 10-15% experienced elevated ethical pressure. 30-40% sometimes experienced ethical pressure
- Ethical pressure was highest in public sector organisations
- 36% agreed that loopholes in the law should be identified that benefit the business
- 9% indicated saying “no” to the organisation was to be avoided, even when there is no legally acceptable alternative to suggest
- 65% achieving what their organisation wants has to be their main priority
- 7% never discussed professional ethics issues with colleagues internally or externally, formally or informally.
Paul Gilbert, CEO of LBC Wise Counsel, who with Steven Vaughan of Birmingham Law School and Stephen Mayson, an honorary prof at UCL, is working with me on the Ethical Leadership for In House Lawyers project (you can keep up to date with that project here)
Whilst some findings give us concern, it is important to emphasise the good practice we found. Our research suggests that ethical in-house practice is about rounded individual understandings of the role; it is about the approach of teams and the organisations those teams work in; it is about understanding and drawing on all the obligations of professionalism; and, it is about building a better infrastructure to manage the tensions within the role.
This research is part of a broader process of engagement and evolution of best practice with the practitioner community about ethical practice for in-house lawyers. Parts 2 of the process will discuss the findings emerging from townhall meetings and interviews with in-house lawyers.