Professional ethics: keeping your head in a difficult situation

Family Law|April 6th 2010

We were sitting around the table at dinner in a restaurant in Eilat. This time of year is for family and friends, so there were lots of young people chatting away. As it turned out, quite a few were newly qualified lawyers, or trainee lawyers doing their compulsory two years internship with various law firms in the City. The talk turned to the challenges of putting “real life” law, as opposed to training and theory, into practice. At that point I asked about how the ethical courses they had received stood up to the rigours of legal practice in the real world.

One of my nieces told me that on her course, professional ethics had been one of the most intensive subjects of all, requiring a higher pass rate. Failure in that subject meant failing the entire course.

I’m not surprised. When I qualified as a solicitor, Lord Denning’s words at the admission ceremony have stayed with me all my life, and I have often repeated them in this blog. One of this country’s most famous judges of all time, Lord Denning was also Master of the Rolls, and therefore the person who signed my admission into law.

“Always do what is right in your head, and you will never go wrong”, he said. How right he was.

However I would, with respect, like to add another phrase. I hope it will help young trainees or newly qualified solicitors who, through sheer lack of experience, might be tempted to stray from “the straight and narrow” as we English people tend to say.

It is this:

“Always put your loyalty to your firm first.”

What do I mean by that?

Let me give an example. As professional as one is towards one’s clients, there is a line that I believe should not be crossed. My clients may be charming, personable and the nicest people in the world, but when I am paid to do a job for them, I stay strictly professional throughout the retainer. I don’t socialise with clients; I don’t want favours; I don’t seek their friendship. That is because crossing the line can put you in a vulnerable position, and render you liable to make mistakes in your professional life. You might be tempted to take steps that otherwise you would not.

I know of one solicitor who became too friendly with his client, and who agreed to wait until after the case had finished for his entire bill to be paid. He is still waiting and lost his job.  I have often heard lawyers, similarly caught out, complain bitterly about their plights. No matter how much you like and trust a client, you shouldn’t breach your loyalty to the firm. A firm needs bills paid to keep the office running, to pay the salaries and the overheads. Had that solicitor simply thought to himself, “I have loyalties to my firm, which must come first”, he would not have found himself in such a situation.

Let your client put their trust in you by all means, because that is what you are being paid to do. They must trust in you and if you behave properly, they will value your honesty, value integrity and value the commercial relationship they have with you.

In family law in particular, clients can behave in ways they wouldn’t do normally. Often this is due to emotions spinning out of control. Or a divorcing client, used to the cut and thrust of the commercial world, may expect things of you which compromise your professional code and also, as per my mantra, your loyalty to your firm. That could land you in deeper water than you ever thought possible.

“Can we discuss something just between you and me and let’s forget we had the conversation afterwards?”

How many countless times in my career has a client said this to me? No, we can’t.

“Can I pay you in cash? Let’s keep this just between us, and the taxman will never find out.”

Again no. Absolutely not.

The firm, its partners, staff, the practice: all of these are more important to you than an illegal offer from a client. Why prejudice your firm and yourself for the sake of a relatively small amount, when you have your entire career, your family and your home to consider? Why put yourself on the line for someone you will never see again?

Some years ago a wealthy client called me over the weekend. He invited himself over to my home because of an emergency. He tried to become my friend. I maintained my distance from him. Then one day he came out with his request. He wanted to pay future bills in cash, saving himself the VAT. It was likely to be a substantial sum. I refused. Would I be interested instead, in a fabulous holiday for all my family if I didn’t render a bill or reduced it? I refused. Could I bill his company and not him? I refused. He was very angry. He wasn’t used to somebody saying no. He persisted. He began to complain about the size of the bills, even though he had agreed them from the outset.  Eventually my firm was disinstructed, with the client declaring that he would go somewhere else and get the same job done more cheaply.  Then years later, my firm came up against him in a different matter. We were successful and I have no doubt, from his actions, that if he could have landed me in hot water, he would have done so in revenge.
But he couldn’t.

Once a client has you under their thumb, the balance of power goes out the window, and you are at their mercy for evermore. Do you want to sleep easy at night?

I recounted this experience to the young trainee lawyers round the table. One newly qualified solicitor said, “It’s ok for you. You’re experienced; a senior partner who can tell a client “no”. But I know of one senior associate in my firm who did something wrong with a client. I knew about it, I was present at their meeting, and I didn’t want to upset the lawyer or the client. I didn’t want to make waves. So I decided to stay quiet, but I think the firm will erupt when it comes out. How would you deal with that situation?”

My answer was straightforward.

“Loyalty to the firm. That is your first loyalty. These things, like it or not, have a habit of surfacing. It might be revealed weeks later or even ten years later but eventually, I assure you, what has happened will come out. It could cost your firm a lot of money if nothing happens. Or it could be remedied right now. And you could certainly be caught up in the cross fire for staying silent. You were at that meeting. You are a qualified solicitor. You are part of the firm, and the firm relies on everyone – no matter how far down the chain – to maintain its reputation. You have to prove your own honesty, bravery, integrity and loyalty to the firm.  So, put it right.”

The young solicitor looked at me straight in the eye and said, “Thanks for that. You are right and I shouldn’t have stayed quiet. As soon as I get back to London, I’m going to have a conversation with a partner in my department”

“Let me know how it goes”, I said. I am certain that with that firm’s impressive reputation, all will ultimately be well for the newly qualified solicitor. It’s so easy to stay quiet, but the cost could be his job too if it ever comes to light – and, as experience demonstrates over and over, it always does.

As the founder and senior partner of a law firm, I place a high value upon the person who can demonstrate that our firm’s interest comes first. I’m sure it’s the same elsewhere.

My niece, about to start her own training contract in London, asked me to write this post. She thinks it may help trainees or newly qualified lawyers who aren’t sure what to do if these uncomfortable ethical issues arise. Arise they will do, in every lawyer’s career and in many different guises.

If you are in a difficult situation, go and speak to a partner in your firm, whose advice and integrity you value.

If you always do what is right in your head and always put your loyalty to the firm first, you won’t go wrong.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Neil says:

    A great post Marilyn. I hope it reaches the audience it deserves.

    When you boil it down to that mantra – Loyalty to the firm – it makes it all very simple. I hope it will be just as easy for the clients of those trainees, newly qualified and not so qualified lawyers to ehar and understand when we repeat it to them.

    The “Bill it to the compnay” one is the one that I have most often had to rebut – oh, and that “Off the record” or “Just between you and me…” line.

  2. Marilyn Stowe says:

    Dear Dilia
    Thank you so much for your great post.
    Here for our readers is some info on an excellent family lawyer in the Dominican Republic.

  3. Andrew says:

    Many years ago I was working for a small firm of three partners and we acted for the landlords of a rather up-market block of flats. They wanted two tenants evicted for nuisance; they were, if I may so put it, active in their profession which is even older than outs, and it wasn’t their morals that bothered the clients but the noise and the trouble caused by their customers.

    We got the order with costs, assessed on the spot. Whereupon one of the defendants approached the senior partner in the lobby of the court and offered to settle the costs horizontally.

    He turned her down and later explained to us all that it wasn’t just a question of tax – how the hell did he account for it in the firm’s books?

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