Nearly one in every five lawyers would round up bills even when it might amount to fraud, report finds

A substantial proportion of the legal profession would round up bills, research from the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has discovered.

The study, entitled ’Virtuous Character for the Practice of Law’, surveyed 966 lawyers and aspiring lawyers.

It found that 16 per cent of experienced solicitors would round up a bill under guidance from senior colleagues, even when it might amount to fraud. This trend decreased with seniority, with the report authors inferring that this might be due to a greater awareness of the significance of this action. The research also showed that one in 20 solicitors would not report misuse of client accounts.

It found that six of every ten solicitors sometimes felt that their personal values were conflicted at work, with that proportion answering ‘sometimes’ to statements such as ‘my work requires that I hide my feelings’, 
‘my work involves tasks that are in conflict with my personal values’ and ‘at work it is difficult to do the right thing’.

Lawyers were found to be highly emotionally involved in their work, with 45 per cent classing themselves as ’highly emotionally involved’ and 36 per cent saying that they felt some emotional involvement. Just 18.5 per cent did not feel emotionally involved.

Over half (57 per cent) of lawyers felt their workplaces were highly collegiate and supportive, 41 per cent felt that they were somewhat collegiate and supportive and only 2 per cent felt that they were not at all supportive or collegiate.

The majority of lawyers (64 per cent) also felt that they had a high degree of autonomy when it came to influencing decisions, applying their own ideas and feeling motivated and useful. One third felt they had some autonomy and 2 per cent felt that they had very little autonomy.

Work/life balance also came into play in the report, with researchers asking how lawyers felt about balancing their obligations to their family with client commitments. Nearly one third (29 per cent) of solicitors were prepared to miss their flight to their family holiday, as were 68 per cent of barristers.

Overall, the report found that morality and an awareness of professional ethics were viewed as key by the vast majority of respondents, with a key exception being tax law. Some respondents specifically mentioned the area as one which frequently required advisers to manipulate the law and to not adhere to a regular moral code.

Report co-principal investigator Hywel Thomas said: “The legal industry is built on public trust, often requiring those working in the sector to make morally-sound judgements on a daily basis.

“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. With recent cuts to the legal aid budget adding to demands on the moral character of lawyers, this understanding of ethical practice is more important than ever.

“Our research suggests that the weak link may be the lack of focus on ethics within undergraduate law courses and in informal work-place learning.That is why the Jubilee Centre is recommending a review of ethics education within the legal profession.”

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