Despite all the jokes there are, in fact, a lot of things that lawyers won’t do. Or at least shouldn’t do. In many jurisdictions qualified lawyers are subject to strict ethical codes which are self-policed, usually effectively, and policed too by alert and draconian regulatory bodies.
Is there any point, then, in law firms having their own ethics committees which would decide:
(a) how the firm should deal with ethical questions arising in the course of work?; and/or
(b) whether the firm should accept particular types of work, particular clients or particular cases?
A committee dealing with questions falling under (a) may be helpful. Colleagues routinely discuss such questions of professional ethics – sometimes seeking guidance from their professional regulatory bodies. On balance, a forum within a law firm that systematized that sort of discussion would be a good thing. The only plausible counter-argument would be that a requirement to discuss ethical issues in such a forum might lead to particularly ethically scrupulous individuals being bulldozed by the less scrupulous, or at least less ethically sensitive, corporate conscience. Individuals who might feel that their own professional consciences would compel them (for instance) to blow the whistle to the regulator about a particular practice might be wrongly reassured by the committee that this wasn’t necessary. In most contexts, however, this is unlikely to be a serious worry. Few solicitors would brazenly admit, to a minuted meeting, that they are proposing to do something ethically dodgy. The general effect is likely to improve ethical standards. Ethical dodginess thrives in dark corners and smoky rooms.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.