Legal Ethics: Lawyers and the Public Interest

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This article examines the nature of the moral demands on the lawyer in the light of clients’ interests, economic pressures, and competition from other services. The role, if any, played by the professions’ code of conduct in the ethical orientation of lawyers is also examined. Without the routine, everyday legal work performed by the family solicitor, the high street lawyer and large legal firms for the private individual, government, commerce and industry there will be little efficiency in human affairs. However, the participation of lawyers in almost every section of human life means that their conduct is scrutinised when major decisions which rely on the advice of lawyers are shown to be immoral or unethical, or when modern business practices and the need to turn profits affect the lawyer/client relationship.

Recently, the reputation of lawyers suffered a considerable blow when it emerged that actions taken by Western democratic countries in the interests of their own security depended in large measure on the advice of lawyers. Under legal cover Britain and America engaged in some of the more odious practices of regimes they criticise. There is little evidence that British lawyers advised the British government on the legality of torture in the way in which the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) did in the United States, but the effect was that both sides of the Atlantic were implicated in wars of dubious legality, renditions and torture. This confirms the prejudice that typically, for lawyers, morality and justice are of secondary concern in the pursuit of clients’ interest. Yet lawyers are caught betwixt and between, as they also face trenchant criticism with respect to client services. In a competitive business environment the pressure to turn a profit has led to complaints of a decline in the quality of legal services offered to the public. It appears that lawyers, tempted to put profit before principle, have become careless of the ethical demands of their profession.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2012

More about this publication?
  • Professional Ethics: Education for a Humane Society
    This book is addressed to all those with an interest in the ethical dimension of professional development. Contributors are drawn from a variety of occupational fields (academic practice, healthcare, occupational therapy, legal, military, business, research, teaching, higher education, and civil engineering), institutional contexts, and geographical regions. However, they are united in their concern for inter-professional ways of working and for developing an ethical response to the changing institutional contexts within which they operate. Practitioners, trainers and managers will find this book both useful and thought-provoking, while scholars with a particular interest in professional ethics will find it informative and insightful.
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