Almost a third of in-house lawyers have been asked to advise on matters that make them morally uneasy, a report published today has suggested.

A survey of 400 in-house lawyers found that 32% were sometimes asked ‘to advise or assist on things that made them uncomfortable ethically’, while 45% were asked to advise on proposed company action which was ethically debatable.

Some 80% of in-house lawyers also agreed that their legal department had been criticised for inhibiting or slowing commercial decisions.

A number of in-house lawyers involved in the survey were ‘hazy (sometimes very hazy)’ on the content of the SRA handbook, according to the study, which cited non-disclosure agreements as an example of where lawyers had ‘perhaps been too quick to see the legal challenge facing their employers as one of risk to the employer’.

The report was commissioned by legal service provider Lawyers on Demand (LOD) and the survey was conducted by academics at University College London and Exeter Law School. According to LOD, the results spotlight the 'tightrope' in-house lawyers tread when representing the best interests of their business while upholding ethical standards.

Simon Harper, co-founder of LOD, said: ‘The role of ethics and wider purpose seems finally to be front of mind for businesses, from our very largest to those in growth stage, and increasingly what customers care about too.

‘For many lawyers, this is a reminder of why they chose their vocation in the first place and so they’re well positioned to put themselves right in the middle of this welcome trend.’

Law Society president Simon Davis said that in-house counsel have exactly the same professional and ethical obligations as every other solicitor. 'To do their job, in-house counsel must advise their client – their employer – on the law without fear or favour; they must think independently, simultaneously alert to their professional duties as a solicitor and the demands of their employer.

'Part of this role – as is the case for every other solicitor – is the responsibility to explain exactly what is and is not lawful, and possible workable alternatives, all within the umbrella of their professional and ethical responsibilities as officers of the court. As such the GC may be sometimes be not just a legal counsellor but the conscience of the business.' 

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