Fairness for all

The profession should put ethical values into practice rather than merely paying lip-service, argues Catherine Thomson. Catherine Thomson is the TSG's press officer.

Are ethics relevant when considering how the profession treats pros-pective entrants to the law? It is easy to answer yes, trotting out the obvious anti-discrimination and equal opportunities provisions, but are there other more subtle ethical issues that are overlooked?

Ethical dilemmas were on the agenda at the Trainee Solicitors' Group (TSG) conference in April with much of the discussion focused on education and recruitment.

It is difficult to define ethics and their place in the profession. Paying lip service to their importance does not necessarily make them easy to put into practice. Liz Marshall, chair of the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities, cites the “reality gap” that exists between the equal opportunities provisions and the way they are actually implemented. She comments that some of these provisions are at times little more than an exercise in political correctness.

There are no easy answers but it is clear that there is more to ethics than a code of conduct which tells lawyers what to do in certain situations. Professor Maria Tighe, head of the school of law at the University of Central England, says that teaching ethics is as much about changing and influencing core values as it is about teaching the “right course of action”.

Simon Baker, chair of the Law Society Training Committee, speaks about ethics in more prosaic terms. He considers them in the context of the company of the future and suggests that one feature of a successful company is “the inspired treatment of people”.

Tighe queries how ethics should be taught to those entering the profession. Should it be an academic subject or taught in the context of practice? There is doubt about whether practice is a sufficiently ethical environment within which individuals can learn about important values. With the shift in education and training from the academic towards an apprenticeship model, this should give cause for concern.

The sheer number of people trying to enter the profession and the gap between supply and demand is also an ethical dilemma. Professor Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, suggests that LPC providers should ensure that individuals and firms get a decent return for their investment. This may involve advising trainees whether they will be able to use their qualifications in the current marketplace.

There is also the matter of the profession maintaining quality by recruiting the best. It is not clear that the current system favours the best candidates. Funding and salary factors mean the system is biased in favour of the financially advantaged. This sort of structural discrimination is so fundamental that many seem to accept the status quo rather than challenge it. The TSG continues to work for changes that will ensure equal access to the profession on the basis of merit alone.

There appears to be a problem not only with attracting the best to the profession but matching the right people to the most suitable disciplines in firms. This should be a central aim for the profession because it would improve professional and personal effectiveness.

Many students take a scatter-gun approach to the application process and seize the first thing that comes along. This can result in square pegs trying to fit into round holes, a process that weakens the profession.

Opinion is mixed about a central application system. Baker says the idea has no support but research commissioned by the Law Society contradicts this.

Trends in the profession are inevitably linked to recruitment. With a shift from private client to corporate business and a squeeze on small firms, it is far harder for high street practices and legal aid firms to recruit their share of the best candidates. Not only is the pay they offer markedly different but there are significant differences in the recruitment processes.

Commercial firms recruit earlier and are far more attractive to students when the future is so uncertain. Is it really ethical that high street practice and legal aid work are becoming marginalised in this way?

A mature student recently wrote in a letter to the Law Society Gazette that the profession owes nothing to those who are trying to enter it.

This view is questionable on ethical grounds. Surely the profession at least owes a duty of fairness and equal opportunity to individuals and a duty to itself to maintain its high quality.