A Woolley: Ethical lawyers are made not born

Posted to SLAW on May 9, 2014

Prospective employers and recent law grads identify ethics and professionalism as crucial competencies for new lawyers. In a recent articleProfessor Neil Hamilton summarized various empirical studies showing that legal employers rank “integrity, honesty and trustworthiness” as a crucial quality in a prospective lawyer hire, regardless of the type of legal work for which the lawyer is being hired. Similarly, new graduates view professionalism as one of the most important skills for the new lawyer. In his article Hamilton notes a survey by Canada’s own Federation of Law Societies in which lawyers who graduated between 2007 and 2012 indicated that “ethics and professional skills” are essential competencies in legal practice (survey data is here).

From this review Professor Hamilton suggests various conclusions. One is that employers should try to identify hiring criteria to identify those candidates with the necessary “integrity, honesty and trustworthiness” (p. 17). Another is that law schools should incorporate competencies related to “values and virtues”, such as “Commitment to self development toward excellence at all competencies; Initiative/drive/strong work ethic; Integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness; Self awareness, the capacity to recognize strengths and weaknesses, seeks/responsive to feedback” (p. 28)

While I can’t help but be pleased to see this apparent consensus on the importance of ethics and professionalism to legal practice, I think the conversation as framed has the potential to lead us astray. It does so in two ways: by overly generalizing legal ethics as a topic for discussion and by assuming that it is ethical actors who create ethical behaviour.

Is “legal ethics” a thing?

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