By Paul Goldin on Thursday, March 29th, 2018 in 2018-19.
“Lawyers have a paramount duty to the court and the administration of justice. It involves a duty to the community by way of a lawyer’s high ethical standards and duty to uphold the law. It goes further; there is a duty not only to obey the law but to ensure the efficient and proper administration of justice. This duty, and all those that follow, are enshrined in the conduct rules” John McKenzie (Legal Services Commissioner NSW) February 2017
Today’s blog is not on a a technical “legal” or “tax” topic, rather recent developments in sports and politics have highlighted the lack of integrity. Integrity is a founding principle on which Vectigal Legal was founded and whilst it is one which should be part of all interactions the current news shows that, unfortunately, too often this is not the case. As integrity is close to the founder’s core I apologize in advance to the extent that this post might appear to be a rant. I do believe that this is, however, an opportune moment to consider the concept of integrity and its importance to the client- lawyer relationship.
In my view a critical question, the primary question, a prospective client should ask of the potential advisor (whether it be financial, health and wellness, or legal) is whether they trust the person. It is often said that trust is something that requires time to develop. Whilst, that might be true, the potential advisor’s integrity might lead the way in building that relationship from the outset. Prospective clients should undertake their own due diligence on the advisor (lawyer) and obtain a sense of that person’s motives, drivers and moral stance.
All lawyers are required to act ethically, as are accountants and most other advisors – all of which are bound by formal codes of professional conduct. Depending on the profession the codes may be more or less proscriptive and binding. For example, lawyers As officers of the court are bound by strict ethical rules and guidelines many of which the general public is often not aware of. The rules are intended to prevent the profession from falling into disrepute and to assist in addressing the concerns of the general public, whose perception of the legal profession is, unfortunately, captured in the many “lawyer” jokes and sayings which pass in current society. The discrediting of the legal profession unfortunately derives from the misdeeds of the few which are attributed to the many.
However, an unfortunate consequence of globalisation, commercialisation and the day-to-day costs of running legal practices (and other professional advisory firms) has, in my view, resulted in a move away from lawyers (and other advisors) acting as professionals and rather seen the emergence of law firms and lawyers as businesses. Internal “KPI’s (a concept the world has inherited from Enron and ilk) are centred around profitability (irrespective of what firms go around professing both internally and outwardly to the public). They are time and hourly rate centric. They are weekly, monthly and yearly billables centric. No longer do the needs and views of clients seemingly take the forefront and centre. No longer to professionals exist in the original sense of the word. This is not, I fear, limited to law but can be seen as wide as the medical profession which are now, in my view, likewise predominated by medical businesses.
In my view, this has (together with other factors) resulted in a drop in trust and integrity being present in the professional relationship. They are business relationships, albeit that much lip-service is made to catch phrases like “trusted advisor” (if you have to call yourself a trusted advisor are you really one?)
Call me sentimental, call me uncommercial or down-right naïve but I believe (or would like to believe) that there is still a place in the world for true professionalism, ethics borne out of integrity rather than rules and where the client-lawyer relationship is bedded in the mutual trust between the parties: an understanding that the lawyer is putting the client’s interests first rather than the motive of profit or self-interest. The relationship should be grounded on the basis that both parties understand that the lawyer will put the client’s interests first and simultaneously that the client understands that integrity and fairness dictates that the lawyer be paid affair remuneration for their services – this does not mean exorbitant inflated (how long is a piece of string?) rates and charges; likewise it does not mean that the client squeeze the lowest possible price out of their lawyer. Rather, it acknowledges that both should conclude the financial aspect of their relationship to their mutual satisfaction and agreement and on the intention that the relationship not be transactional but a long-term symbiotic one where the success of one is the success of both.