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POVERTY is the greatest threat to ethics facing the legal profession, with lawyers being tempted to take on dubious cases in an effort to compete with the "billable hour syndrome", the Law Society's secretary general says.
Speaking at the International Bar Association's eighth biennial conference of the Section on General Practice, Law Society secretary general John Hayes said there was a "pressure and potential conflict" between getting the maximum financial return for work, and "actually doing what the client wants".
He said increasing regulation and changes in working practices meant many lawyers were facing hard times, and some considered turning a blind eye to ethical guidelines. Legal aid cuts had added to the problem.
"When there is less work around people are tempted to take on jobs which, in their heart of hearts, they know there is something not quite right about," said Hayes. "The number of inquiries made to our ethics people has rocketed."
Finnish lawyer Sirpa Niemisto told delegates: "Ethical questions arise when getting as much money as possible for every task is the primary motivation. An impoverished profession is a very great threat to the whole legal system."
US lawyer Professor David Sonenshein said he was unsure whether US professional bodies were able to monitor ethical standards. "There are many lawyers who have benefited from being a scorched earth - the kind who will do anything. I don't know that our bodies are really able to control that."