Addressing a session titled ‘When rules run out: the place of ethics in risk and compliance’, the Legal Risk partner advised: ‘There is a recognition now that it’s a bad idea for the COLP to become the “conscience” of the firm, while everyone else gets on with the practice of law. Everybody in a firm needs to understand the moral context in which they are operating.’

He added: ‘It should be part of everyone’s career progression to acquire virtuous habits, and that requires a conscious effort.’

Dingwall described three ‘ingredients’ of this approach:

1) Training – identify learning needs with reference to the SRA’s Competence Statement, inculcating an understanding of ethical concepts;

2) Ethical infrastructure. ‘On one level this is the about the culture of the firm – “the way things are done around here” – and takes its tone from the top. One of the key issues is to get partners to go to training on ethics. The best way to persuade them [if they won’t] is to “hit them in the wallet”.

‘It’s also about systems, controls and monitoring. People must also be aware that their conduct will be monitored – that is an important check on what they will do.’

3) Access to external advice. A partner may lack the necessary objectivity, for example, in deciding whether to report a matter to the SRA.

Dingwall also disclosed the compliance topics that most concern top 200 firms, as reported in a Legal Risk survey (see box). He said: ‘It slightly troubles me, looking at this. Ethics is a lot wider than conflicts and confidentiality. What this also reflects is perceived problems, not necessarily real problems.

‘So, if you look at number 6 – substance abuse – [support charity] Lawcare would probably agree that this is very low on the list. But what they would say is that the ethics of subjecting staff and partners to stress should be much higher up.

‘Stress is a big ethical issue and it is very much an everyday issue.’

Case studies are available in the Francis Dingwall-authored book Cautionary Tales: Lessons in Ethics for Lawyers, which was reviewed in these pages on 27 February.

‘Everyday pressures’ (ranked in order)

To what extent do these concern you?

  1. Partners agreeing to onerous outside counsel guidelines without consulting you
  2. Application of conflicts rules where the firm is acting for joint clients
  3. Breach of confidentiality through Facebook and other social media
  4. Over-zealous lawyering
  5. Fee-earners believing their sole duty is to act in the client’s best interests
  6. Substance abuse, such as alcoholism
  7. Overgenerous hospitality (to or from clients)

Source: Legal Risk