Pro bono work can repair the profession's tarnished image

Peta Sweet argues that the time has come for solicitors to confound their critics by proving their commitment to ethical obligations. So it has been yet another bad week for the profession's image. This time, following news of the £400,000 legal bill presented to John Major in his role as guardian to princes Harry and William, the media outcry was predictable.

Rarely a week goes by without public criticism of lawyers. The term “fat cats” applied to lawyers even crept into a recent Archers episode.

And the criticism does not begin and end with attacks on fees charged by the biggest firms. Lawyers are also lambasted by the media for acting in “spurious” cases or for manipulating the legal aid and criminal justice systems, all for financial gain.

The real issue is how the profession – collectively (including leaders) and individually – should respond.

We must recognise that attacks on lawyers are now a tradition among media and public. They will not stop. The profession must recognise that it has, and will continue to have, a high public profile. Solicitors have a duty to take responsibility for their own actions and the profession's image.

It is not good enough to cry “unfair” or blame the Law Society press office when the Mail's editor launches another attack. Failure to respond strongly to real professional misconduct cases or to foresee the potential media witch-hunt over Diana's estate is unacceptable.

One way forward is for the profession to reassess what it actually means to be a profession. It is this which should set us apart from merchant bankers, stockbrokers and other businesses. We have an ethical obligation to serve our communities as best we can and to ensure access to justice for all – as many do.

This ethical dimension to our profession is the one thing we can share at a time when we are so divided and under such constant attack. It must be time for the lawyer's ethic to be top of the profession's agenda.

Importantly for the future, it must also be time for that ethic to be practically instilled into those entering the profession. The Law Society could play an important role here in its responsibility for regulating entry to and training of the profession. For example, it could ensure that professional ethics is taught as part of accredited law degree courses or follow the American Bar Association's lead in promoting pro bono clinics in law schools.

At the same time, the many who honour their ethical obligation every day should not be afraid to shout about it. Pro bono work is one way of proving that we are about more than self-interest and profit.

The Solicitors Pro Bono Group has an important role to play in helping the profession with this and has already achieved success in ensuring opinion formers are aware of existing pro bono commitment. But we cannot do this without feedback and support from the whole profession.

Pro bono work can unite the profession by encouraging lawyers to work together, sharing resources for the public good. It can also provide tangible evidence to demonstrate the professionalism of solicitors. But the issues are far wider. Pro bono is not simply a PR exercise but an ethical and professional obligation.

Together, we can prove that the profession is a profession and not simply a business enterprise and start to redress the “fat cat” rhetoric.