Fixating on raw metrics such as profit per equity partner, hourly rates and a firm’s position in sector league tables can undermine the professionalism of solicitors, a leading authority on legal ethics has warned.

Professor Richard Moorhead, chair in law and professional ethics at University College London, said the ‘financialisation of professional culture’ has been shown to induce selfish and ‘less honest’ impulses in law firm managers.

Delivering a lecture on ‘Precarious Professionalism’ at The Law Society, Moorhead, who is also the Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law at UCL, unveiled a six-point plan to bolster professionalism and ethics in law. This includes a fitness-to-own test for in-house departments and a fitness-to-run test for partners.

He also wants to see more investment in innovation, and research and development in the legal sector, which he said is ‘hopelessly bad’ at R&D compared to other professions.  

Moorhead also suggested there could be a case for ‘more rules’. Notwithstanding the move to outcomes-focused regulation, Moorhead observed that ‘nobody thinks they’ve got regulation right yet’. More robust enforcement might also be required, he believes.

He also called for a ‘proper debate about the rule of law and administration of justice principles’.

‘Being primed to think of yourself as a professional breeds complacency,’ he added. ‘You will be more prone to acting contrary to the interests of clients.’

Moorhead also pointed to the dangers that technology poses to professionalism, alluding to the development of sophisticated online dispute resolution products. In the Netherlands, he pointed out, there is an application that enables contested divorces to be concluded online ‘with no [direct] human agency at all’.

‘Will lawyers continue driving dispute resolution or will systems designers [take over]?’ he added.

 Moorhead blogs on ethical matters at