The Strathclyde Diploma Blog: Reconciling Academia with Practice

A Guest Blog from Strathclyde Diploma student – a different perspective .

I’m Iain Witheyman, a student on the professional Legal Diploma at Strathclyde University.

Alongside studying I work at the wonderful Inkster Solicitors in Glasgow, learning literally every minute. Soon I hope to fulfil my lifelong ambition of becoming a solicitor, after that who knows? The sky is the limit.

The Strathclyde Diploma Blog: Reconciling Academia with Practice: Is A New Ethical Standard The Key To Modernising The Legal Profession & Competing Post-ABS.

In a week that has seen revolutions, revelations, resignations, spying, hacking and big fat gypsy weddings – I’ve decided to have a crack at blogging. What’s the worst that could happen?

With the world on the verge of being turned upside down (peacefully we hope) I have not been able to stop myself thinking about the fluid nature of society, the law and morality. The inter-connected and multifaceted relationship between the three, and more pressingly for my own personal circumstance, as I make the step across to becoming a lawyer, how my role, my perspective and my aspirations for all three will be altered, and thereafter evolve.
Will this change in me take the form of a dramatic uprising, or more that of a slow tidal transition? To focus my thoughts I‘m going to talk about the difference between academia and professional practice in regards to professional standards and ethics, as taught by practising professionals on the Strathclyde Legal Diploma.
Hopefully by identifying differences between these perspectives I will be better equipped, knowing gap I am soon to cross.

The Ethics course can be confusing for a lawyer-to-be, not because the rule books are hard to follow, they’re not. The rules are all there neat and tidy, easily accessible, and in certain areas, such as confidentiality they are well established at their core. That however doesn’t stop them being able to outfox many a diploma student. The complexity comes from the contradiction of being served a starter of a text-book of what appear to be fixed rules, only for this to be followed by a main course of real life war stories from your tutor about skirmishies with the Law Society and accompanied by very stark examples of how business must be put before ethics – especially in the current economic climate.
All of a sudden the black and white of your text-book runs to grey. But that’s ok, that’s fine, we are lawyers, we are used to dealing with grey areas, we are good at dealing with grey areas. We wear grey suits and grey ties, we go to work in grey buildings and look out onto gray skies. Except we don’t. We are all different, and what is more society, the law and morality are forever changing, professional ethics therefore are not grey, but multicoloured and fluid, and therein lies the rub. How do you create a rule around something that shifts? What’s harder for law students is, how do you learn about this elusive world of ethics, if it isn’t in black and white. Trial and error is not an option after all.

Learning to be a lawyer, you learn to be analytical of everything, but it is in ethics that the light is shone back on ourselves, and we don’t like it. Suddenly we have to conform to accepted rules and norms – a shock to most students, let alone legal masterminds! “What’s that you say? we have to be professional!?” “We have a duty to protect our clients!?” “Wait a minute! I only signed up for the BMW and the designer gear, when did they sneak all this on us!”

The illusion created by academia is that without ethics the profession would in some respects die, but how realistic is this view. As I said earlier the teaching of the rules are often punctuated by stories of skirmishes with the Law society. Take what my tutor said in our first ethics tutorial, “Lesson one, avoid writing letters to the Law society at all costs, cause then you are on Mr Ritchie’s radar, and once you are on it, there is no getting off it.”

Talk about big brother state! So I was left wondering surely ethics is more than just avoiding the Law Society’s radar? Maybe I am naive to the reality of practicing law in the real world, maybe it was my “I know better” lawyer instinct, or maybe the idealistic mantra vermanently plugged at last weeks’ Law Society of Scotland event – that the Law Society was only ever here to help lawyers – is actually a dastardly trap, plotted by Mr Ritchie and executed by Mr Patterson! I suspect the reality cannot be so neatly pigeon holed, and when the time comes for me to raise my ethical eyebrow in practice, as with all judgements, which way I go will depend entirely on the facts of the case. Because isn’t that the point of being a lawyer, to apply the law to the infinite combinations of facts that may arise, to ask questions and examine answers, to test and redefine boundaries. In essence ethical questions are no different to questions of law, the only difference being you have to play two roles, those of both client and solicitor. You have to advise yourself as impartially as you would another, and ultimately whatever decision you make has to stand up to scrutiny. Easy – in a perfect world. Difficult in reality, but surely a career long in-depth conversation with ethics is better than attempting to ignore the elephant in the room.

What’s more with the coming of ABS, ethics and standards of service might just be the route to modernising legal practices and professionals. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, a higher ethical onus and level of service might just protect the smaller partnerships. Certainly a relaxation of ethical standards plays into the hands of the big businesses set to enter the Market. The logic being that as costs of legal services are driven down, the standard of serve and quality of solicitor-client relationships deteriorate relatively. So in that sense there may be a reconciliation between higher ethical and service standards and protecting the business of existing law firms, as surely the most effective method of encouraging clients not to migrate is by giving them ear they can have confidence in and the best service possible. If you can’t compete on price, you have to offer more value for money through proactive client management and stronger solicitor-client relationships.
Or is the reality in this increasingly competitive market that lawyers need to place ethics behind business needs, as my ethics tutor put it. “Lesson two in Ethics for Lawyers; Lawyers nowadays aren’t in a position to pick and choose clients, so frankly get your fee and who cares if they take your advice, if they don’t and they end up in court, that’s more fees for you. The more trouble they are in the more money they are worth to you.”

I am not sure if this was strictly part of the ETHICS curriculum, it certainly seemed more “practice management.” That said, we are supposed to be learning about what it is really like to be a lawyer in the real world. Maybe in some circles this is considered good forward planning and excellent client relationship management! I suspect not so in others mind you. As I understand it acceptable standards of service are determined by what a client perceives to be a suitable standard. I hate to think, what any client hearing that last quote would be driven to say in their (inevitable) letter of complaint to the Law Society. I suspect the disgruntled client would require a new keyboard, having worn out the keys “B” “S” “A” “R” “T” “D” from repeated use.

Sure this approach is likely to be enough to cover your own back when the Law Society eventually do come knocking with a complaint, but wouldn’t it be safer and better all round to do what you can to avoid such complaints in the first place. In this age of positive action, should the test of acceptable behaviour for solicitors not be changed from “not bringing the profession into disrepute” to a proactive “did you advance the public perception of lawyers.”? Controversial I know, but would that not be to the benefit of all lawyers.

Of course at times, clients won’t like the advice I give them, they may at times not take it. I think at those times I would ask myself whether I had done enough to earn their trust. I know it’s just a job to some lawyers who have been at it for yonks, or who fell into the legal profession for this reason or that, but to me it is a chance to really impact upon people in a positive way, and I refuse to let that dream die. It certainly won’t be every client, it might not even be many, but the aim must remain the same, otherwise you would be better off going and getting a job in-house somewhere and hoping nobody ever knocks your door.

The overarching sentiment from every lecturer and every tutorial leader teaching on the Strathclyde Diploma has been for us soon-to-be-lawyers to go out into the profession, to learn first, but to also be confident enough in our own ability to modernise the legal profession. Embrace new techniques and new technology, embrace modern language, cast aside unnecessary traditions, pomp and procedure. All things my mentor Brian Inkster has reiterated and lead by example on; create your own style of law, maintain the professionalism, the expertise, the specialism, and the precision, but always be open to evolution, react along with the changes in society, especially modern communication tools, such as blogs, twitter and facebook, proactively connect with clients, all this will secure you within the profession, and will further the professions standing in society. You get back twice what you put in. It is down to us, the next generation, to redefine ethical standards so they become a vehicle for altering, maintaining and growing our future respective law firms. It is simple the more we put in, the more we will get out.
Go forth and be ethical, it’s always in your interests.
Iain Witheyman


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