Ethics: A code to navigate the tensions of modern practice

August 1st, 2014

The recent synergy between the profession and the law deans regarding the vital importance of inculcating ethics into future legal practitioners is a welcome one. In fact, some law academics are of the view that ethics should be infused into every course in the LLB curriculum, and should not be confined to a specific, brief module.

This was one of the outcomes of the Ethics Summit held under the auspices of the Law Society of South Africa earlier this year and bodes well for future practitioners. The public will be the greater beneficiary of a renewed focus on ethics, and the profession too will benefit from a reputational aspect.

However, the question as to how to rejuvenate and promote the culture of ethics among practising attorneys has come up often over the years in letters and articles in this journal. In fact, exactly three years ago in this column in the August 2011 issue, we asked the question ‘Is the attorneys’ profession still relevant?’ In concluding that it is, we quoted Lord Hunt who noted that a profession is defined, among other things, by a commitment by its members to standards of behaviour that are founded in ethics and best practice. These standards go beyond the general law of the land, in terms of which members of trades, as opposed to professions, are held accountable.

So as attorneys – and as officers of the court – we must continue to be held accountable to higher values than the average businessman, tradesman or politician.

But in striving for those higher values, what happens to practitioners faced with choices or decisions that need to be benchmarked against the rules of professional conduct of the profession?

The International Principles on Conduct for the Legal Profession by the International Bar Association open as follows:

‘Lawyers throughout the world are specialised professionals who place the interests of their clients above their own, and strive to obtain respect for the Rule of Law. They have to combine a continuous update on legal developments with service to their clients, respect for the courts, and the legitimate aspiration to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Between these elements there is often tension.’

It is precisely in that grey area where the rules of professional conduct, the demands of practice and the need to earn a living meet, that attorneys may, at times, need assistance in navigating the ‘tension’. This becomes critical when the attorney is a sole practitioner, with little or none of the peer support that may be available in a larger firm. Of the current 10 959 attorneys’ firms, 6 745 are one-person firms – and a good number of these are new practitioners who may have had no other option but to practise on their own.

It is, of course, possible for practitioners to turn to the ethics committees of their provincial law societies for advice. However, in today’s fast-paced profession, practitioners need an open, immediate and confidential channel that can provide real-time responses to ethical dilemmas.

An option could be an ethics telephone or e-mail hotline that can be directed to a panel of experts – even experienced, retired attorneys – readily available and committed to providing guidance on a confidential basis. This can be backed up by an online, categorised database of questions and answers that is updated and accessible, and hyperlinked to the relevant rules and rulings of the law societies.

The database would have the dual purpose of providing immediate information and also serving as a resource to monitor trends and practice requirements.

Ethics, like morals, are intangible and many will say, cannot be taught. But the impact of immoral or unethical actions in the profession is very real and far-reaching for the practitioner, his or her client and for the profession as a whole.

The rejuvenation and promotion of a culture of ethics requires the commitment of the entire profession – for it to remain a profession.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (Aug) DR 3.