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Ethics, lawyers and wellbeing

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

The question of professional ethics has been on my mind this week, namely what causes one profession to have a higher ethical standing than another?

I was invited to participate in a podcast by Lawyers Weekly, to mark the release of the fifth annual Ethics Index published by the Governance Institute of Australia.

According to the Index, Australians’ perceptions of lawyers’ ethics have improved in 2020: 45% of respondents say lawyers are “somewhat ethical” or “very ethical”; however a pretty large 34% say lawyers are “somewhat unethical” or “very unethical”. Our score was 11 this year, compared to a bleak -2 in 2019.

We rank lower than many professions, whereas those in health and emergency services rank much higher in the public mind when it comes to ethics.

I have my opinions as to why the community views our ethics so dismally, which I expressed on the podcast, as I shared with Jerome Doraisamy, Lawyers Weekly Deputy Editor and Megan Motto, CEO of Governance Institute of Australia.

Essentially, the public believes that lawyers either put our own self-interest first (e.g. the stereotypical ambulance chaser) or we manipulate the law for the benefit of our clients' interests (e.g. when we help clients 'get off' on technicalities). Lawyers are not seen as a profession that acts in the public interest, nor as being transparent or accountable.

I have long believed that as lawyers we do ourselves a disservice by diminishing our own duty to the public. This is in truth our paramount duty as officers of the court: to act in the interests of justice. If the profession emphasised this duty more, if we actively signalled to our own clients that while we represent them we also act in service of justice, if law firms instilled in their own lawyers the values of behaving in this way and if professional law associations held lawyers more accountable to this duty, then we as a profession would not only increase our ethical standing in the eyes of the public, we would boost our sense of professional purpose and reduce the rates of depression, anxiety, addiction and mental health issues that have been blighted our ranks for too long.

Please listen to the podcast and check out the Governance Institute's 2020 Ethics Index. I've included a brief video with the Index highlights below.

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