By Radha Baan
I attended a panel session on ethical dilemmas for new recruits to commercial firms on January the 19th, organised by Nigel Duncan (Hosted by the Legal Ethics Forum of City Law School’s Centre for the Study of Legal Professional Practice.)
The panellists were:
- Sarah de Gay, General Counsel and Head of Compliance, Slaughter and May and Chair of the Professional Rules and Regulations Committee, City of London Law Society
- Tony King, Consultant to Clifford Chance, former Head of Clifford Chance Academy
- Caroline Pearce, Head of KM and Training at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Chair of the Training Committee of the City of London Law Society.
The session was set up so that the participants were given scenarios that could realistically arise in the early years of working in a commercial firm. We then had to vote on what to do and discussed the different option and the actions that can be taken in these kind of situations.
This session served to highlight several things that are important for solicitors to know (but also apply to barristers and others in the legal profession).
- Your personal life
When it comes to being in the legal profession, there is one thing that is absolutely key: you don’t have a personal life.
What you say and do are reflections of who you are as a person, and are things that will determine your success as a solicitor. You always have to behave in a responsible way and be in control, in order to build and maintain a good reputation. Your reputation is directly connected to the reputation of the firm and the reputations of solicitors in general, which is why the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) requires solicitors to comply with their codes of conduct. Some firms themselves will probably have even stricter rules in place and might even monitor your activity on social media to ensure that their reputation is not compromised by your behaviour.
It is easy to understand why this is. Clients expect certain standards from their legal counsel. Solicitors, barristers and other professionals in the legal sector have the responsibility of being an example to others. Nobody wants to be advised and represented by someone who doesn’t have their life together or who is doing things wrong themselves. There is a certain expectation from the legal counsel that need to be fulfilled in order for them to be able to help the client in the best possible way.
- When in doubt, ask a partner
Some of the scenarios in the session were about things that would not have an impact on a personal level, but would effect the entire firm and the firms’ reputation. What to do if there was a breach in the firewall and whether to backdate documents were among the topics covered. As a trainee or a junior in the firm, it is difficult to oversee the impact that a decision may have on the company, or even consequences that may arise from it can completely ruin a budding career if it is dealt with in the wrong way. This is why the one thing that was repeated a number of times was that if there was any doubt about what was the right thing to do, you should ask a partner or someone else that has a high enough seniority and experience to be able to deal with difficult ethical dilemmas.
It is not easy to approach a partner to ask them about tasks that have been assigned to you, and you might even feel like you’re not doing a good job because you need to ask questions about it. However, the important thing to remember is that you are in the first years of your legal career and you are there to learn. As a trainee, you have to build up the experience and knowledge of real life situations and you have to learn how to handle difficult problems and to know when to ask for help, rather than muddling through and making mistakes that may have far reaching consequences. It is better to ask for help 10 times, than make one mistake that costs you your career.
- Know the hierarchy of duties
As a solicitor you have a number of duties towards your client, like the duty of confidentiality and the duty of disclosure. But what do you do when there is a conflict affecting these duties?
The first thing to know is that there is a hierarchy when it comes to the duties.
For example: the duty of confidentiality will always trump the duty of disclosure.
This is a very important thing to know, because it deals with the basic rules of being a solicitor. If the wrong duty is breached, it could result in an undesirable outcome of the case, loss of a client or worse, loss of a good reputation. These are the fundamental pillars upon which your profession rest and must be respected and preserved.
The second thing to remember is that the point made in 2 (above) applies here too: when in doubt, ask a partner. You might know your duties, but sometimes it can be difficult to know which one is more important. The partner will know what to do and will be able to guide you so that you know how to deal with situations like this on your own in the future.
- Know how your clients think and think the same way (understand your clients)
The importance of understanding your clients cannot be underestimated. When working with a client, you need to know how they think. Why they do what they do and want what they want. If you don’t know what their goals are, you cannot possibly help them in the best possible way. You might find yourself telling them that what they want you to do is not possible, when in fact, there may be another way their goal might be reached. If you understand why they are asking you to do something, you can use your experience to find the best possible way to make that happen (which may not be obvious in their initial brief). This way, it is not just the client that is telling you what to do, and you blindly doing it; rather, they are asking you for help and you are providing the best possible service: thereby establishing a good and trustworthy relationship.
Furthermore, if you flatly do what they instruct, you will not build up their confidence in your abilities, whereas if you take responsibility and show them that you know what you are talking about, you will remain in control and be able to anticipate and deal with challenges that are almost certain to arise.
- Communication is key
You have probably heard this a million times before, but communication really is key!
You need to be able to communicate clearly with fellow trainees, partners and clients. This is the only way there can ever be a good relationship between you and the people around you, which in turn is vital in being able to help your clients.
You need to be very open about what is going on with your cases and explain yourself, not only to the partner, but also to your client. You are laying important foundations for your legal career and you need to make sure it is a stable one by starting out with good practice. If you communicate properly with the people involved, you will get the help and feedback you need, to learn and grow into a good solicitor. If you let your pride get in the way and behave as if everything is under control, or you do not communicate the relevant things to the relevant people you will not get very far and miss out on valuable lessons that are necessary for you to learn.
Knowing yourself and being able to express yourself is key. This way you are able to get the help that you need to be better and achieve your goals.
I would like to leave you with this: everybody is going to face dilemmas and make mistakes, especially in the first years’ of their legal career. The important thing is how you deal with them and what you learn from them. This will determine the kind of solicitor you are going to be, the clients you are going to attract and how successful you will become.
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