Developing your ethical antennae as a graduate lawyer

Graduate lawyer

The reality of practice is that legal ethical issues are rarely boxed and wrapped as a neat package.

By the time you finally stand up in the Supreme Court, to hear counsel move your admission, you have probably studied a significant amount of material relating to legal ethics, some of which is contained in the relevant legislation regulating lawyers, some in the rules and some in case law. The truth is when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court pronounces your addition to the roll of practitioners, thoughts of ethical legal practice are locked away in some reflective piece on your hard drive.

The reality of practice is that legal ethical issues are rarely boxed and wrapped as a neat package. More often than not they creep up on you when you are least expecting them and require you to develop your legal ethical antennae to recognise potential dangers. The question arises as to how to do this in the absence of your ethics lecturer standing over your shoulder and alerting you to some conundrum? The short answer is to start trusting your instincts and when something does not feel quite right take a step back and if possible pass the scenario by a more experienced colleague/s as this is a sound strategy to test whether your ethical antennae are becoming attuned to potential legal ethical issues.

While you are encouraged to have an awareness of the legal ethical behaviour of other practitioners in your work environment and the wider legal profession, your first priority is always to ensure your legal ethical behaviour is beyond reproach. As with other skills in legal practice, the development of your legal ethical antennae will improve over time. In certain instances this may need to occur at a more rapid pace, particularly, where a firm or a particular legal environment has a less than ideal approach to legal ethics. The unfortunate reality is if you find yourself in a work environment where you are not comfortable with the workplace culture, in relation to legal ethical issues, then you should strongly consider looking for another job, sooner rather than later.

It is also important to not confuse your moral code with the ethical obligations of the profession. For example, you may have a strong moral standpoint in relation to not wanting to represent individuals accused of sexual assault or insurers who are defending personal injuries claims, or the landlords of major shopping centres or pursuing borrowers who are in default on behalf of the big banks. If these are your legitimate beliefs then try and avoid legal environments where your moral beliefs are triggered and you question whether it is “ethical” to carry out such legal work.

Ultimately, the responsibility for upholding legal ethics rests with you. Make sure your legal ethics antennae are ready to sense danger as you never know when a curly problem is about to surface and you do not want to put all the time, effort and money you have invested in your legal career at risk. Remember, it is often the small things which can bring people undone, like witnessing a signature when they have not seen a party sign for the sake of convenience or not properly considering whether a conflict exists and whether it is appropriate to act for a party. These things do not sound like much but they have had serious ramifications for more than one legal practitioner.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team