How do we ensure that professionals act ethically?

ethicsLast week, IP Draughts was interviewed by a researcher.  The researcher was part of a team at the University of Birmingham who are conducting a research project titled Virtues, Values and Decision-Making in Three Professions in the UK in the 21st Century.

According to the project website,”the research is designed to build a contemporary picture of the place and influence of virtues and values in the education, training and practice of doctors, lawyers, and teachers”.

In past centuries, and perhaps today, professional standards and values were inculcated through apprenticeships and other on-the-job training, and reinforced by self-regulation and peer pressure.  Self-regulation dates back to the medieval guild system, and can be seen today in the activities of bodies as the Inns of Court, Bar Council, Law Society, Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the various Royal Colleges that train medical doctors, and the General Medical Council.

Formal dinner in the Inner Temple dining hall

Formal dinner in the Inner Temple dining hall

Traces of this approach can been seen in the requirement for would-be barristers to attend a certain number of formal dinners at their Inn of Court before qualifying.  IP Draughts originally qualified as a barrister.  To do so he had to pass the Bar Finals Course, and provide references from two persons of good character.  He also had to eat a number of dinners at the Inner Temple – from memory it was a dozen.  This was supposed to be part of a process of soaking up the ethos of the Bar through interaction with one’s elders and betters.  Perhaps it was IP Draughts’ fault for being obtuse, but very little ethical instruction seemed to be in evidence.  The main lesson that he learnt (a valuable one for life) was that drinking too much cheap port, even if it is “free”, is not a good idea.  It gives you a terrible hangover the next day.

That particular practice may have outlived its usefulness, but the general idea of learning how to be a good professional through interaction with senior colleagues is a good one.  IP Draughts greatly appreciates the time spent on him by his early mentors, including Peter Clark and David Griffith-Jones (barristers who are both now judges), Dennis Jeffrey (a chartered accountant), and various solicitor partners at Bristows, including Philip Westmacott, Edward Nodder and Sally Field.

paulineIn IP Draughts’ view, ethics are best learnt by example.  The researcher who interviewed IP Draughts asked him whether there should be formal courses in ethics.  When he heard this question, IP Draughts couldn’t stop an image coming into his mind of some scenes from a TV comedy series called League of Gentlemen.  In those scenes, a character called Pauline teaches unemployed people how to look for a job and conduct themselves at interviews.  See this horribly funny example on YouTube.  If formal courses in ethics became compulsory, would Pauline be teaching them?

Political pressure in recent years has driven the professions towards independent regulation of their activities.  To an extent, IP Draughts agrees with this trend, as long as it is not taken too far.  The SRA needs to keep working at finding the right balance between sensible and effective regulation and not being a right royal pain in the arse.  The compulsory, annual diversity survey that IP Draughts must conduct with his staff is an example in the latter category.

An extreme example of the “new” approach can be seen in the periodic comments from Elisabeth Davies, the Chairman of the Consumer Panel of the Legal Services Board.  Ms Davies seems to view all current regulation as pandering to the vested interests of lawyers, and she wants to sweep it all away and replace it with a totally independent system.  IP Draughts is not sure why the profession is paying for this body, whose primary function seems to be to issue policy proposals and press releases that bad-mouth the legal profession at every opportunity.  Fortunately, the Government seems to take the panel’s rantings with a pinch of salt.

ProofBefore taking part in the interview with the researcher, IP Draughts completed an online questionnaire.  The questions were more subtle than this, but were along in the lines of:

A. You have discovered that your nephew, who is a solicitor in your firm, has been raiding the client account to pay off his gambling debts.  You repay the correct amount of money into the client account plus interest.  Do you report your nephew to:

  1. The client
  2. The accounts committee of your firm’s partnership
  3. The full partnership of your firm
  4. The Solicitors Regulation Authority
  5. The police?

B. Do you take the action referred to in question A because:

  1. It is the ethical thing to do
  2. You are required to do so by the rules
  3. It is someone else’s responsibility to decide what action to take
  4. Your nephew has committed a criminal offence
  5. Your client would want you to take this action?

IP Draughts doesn’t recall what answers he gave (honest!) but will be interested to see any survey results that the research team publishes.

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