Ethics in law: Undercover investigators secretly film New York lawyers

A London-based NGO has secretly filmed New York lawyers to expose “how the American legal system has the potential to enable corruption.”

An employee of Global Witness visited lawyers at 13 firms in New York City, posing as an advisor to an African minister of mines and asking how to anonymously move large sums of money into the United States, a request that should have raised suspicions of corruption.

While none of the lawyers are accused of breaking the law, and none actually agreed to take on the investigator as a client, all of them except one provided suggestions as to how this could be managed.

“We make the laws and when we do so we make them in the way that’s advantageous to the lawyers,” one lawyer was recorded saying.

The majority of those filmed “failed to clearly say that they would not assist illegal conduct, and most did not insist on information that would have been necessary to determine whether the client’s plans were illegal.”

The one lawyer who refused to offer advice was Jeffrey Hermann, who runs his own small firm in NYC. He is recorded saying: “This ain’t for me… my standards are higher,” and refusing to suggest anyone else who might offer advice, saying other lawyers would be “insulted.”

The Lowering the Bar report, which can be read here, concluded that American lawyers should be “required to carry out checks on their clients to actively look out for suspicious activity when carrying out financial transactions,” adding that European lawyers are already required to carry out such checks.

Ethics in law is a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic. A 2014 report by the University of Birmingham found that one in every five lawyers would round up bills even when it might amount to fraud, and concluded that “while the legal profession is by no means in the midst of a moral crisis, there is concern within the sector that not all members of the profession are committed to, and have an understanding of, morally good practice.