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Lawyers “cannot hide from responsibility” for client actions

Lawyers are not “neutral technicians” and “cannot hide from responsibility for what clients do with the legal advice they provide”, a leading legal academic has warned.

Professor Steven Vaughan called on lawyers to ask “hard questions” of their employers, use their expertise in the public interest and have “moral courage”.

Speaking at yesterday’s inaugural LawCare conference, Professor Vaughan, deputy dean at UCL’s law faculty, said that underpinning the professional values of lawyers were “values and virtues” which were often forgotten.

“The pursuit of profit was never the single purpose of the legal profession, even though at times it seems like that.”

Closing the conference with a talk on values and purpose in the law, Professor Vaughan – who is one of the most prominent academic researchers into the legal profession – said there had been “massive changes” in the regulation of law in recent times, including liberalisation and a huge growth in numbers.

As the profession moved from being “quite simple and closed” to being “more open and messy”, the traditional model of being a lawyer was “really being challenged”.

Professor Vaughan said he trained as a solicitor in environmental law in a large commercial law firm which did a lot of tobacco defence work.

His mother had died of lung cancer linked to smoking and, after he told the firm he could not do that kind of work, it was clear he “couldn’t stay”.

The academic questioned the “disconnect” which appeared to exist between legal advice and client actions.

“As a profession we become so wrapped up in doing things for the client that we forget our independence.

“Being a lawyer means challenging the client, pushing the client and sometimes saying no even when what the client is asking is perfectly legal.

“Sometimes, when awful things are done, the response is: ‘I’m just a lawyer.’ Solicitors must not rationalise misconduct on the basis that their only duty is to the client.”

The professor said now was a time when “a lot of debates” about values were coming to a head. As law firms became more “worried/curious” about who would want to work for them, they were “thinking more about their reputations”.

The legal profession was also under pressure over a series of “awful scandals”, mental health issues and having to cope with pressure from clients.

Professor Vaughan called on lawyers to “lawyer professionally and with purpose, ask hard questions of your employers, reflect on why you take on clients and the work you take on, and take ownership.”

He went on: “Use your expertise in the public interest. Have moral courage.”

Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, said her memory of training as a solicitor in the last year of the Law Society Finals exam was that “the only ethical example we were given was not paying your train fare”.

Professor Vaughan said law schools tended to be focused on “what do the rules say” and not the principles behind them.

He said he would prefer students to be asked questions such as ‘what does it mean to be independent?’ but he did not think it happened often.

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