7 Things Lawyers Do that are Totally Immoral

I’m sure there are members of community the who think that everything lawyers do is immoral.

I don’t agree.

However, I do think that over time many lawyers become comfortable with a series of behaviours that aren’t in the right box.

If we’re going to maintain the standards that are expected of trusted advisors, if we’re going to be trusted advisors, if we’re going to remain (or become again) a noble profession, we have to be above reproach in the way we deal with others.

That means we’re going to need to adopt new standards, not just rely upon the list of things in our ethical rules that are prohibited.  Surely we can do better than just “avoiding doing wrong” – what about aiming higher?

Here’s my list of things that some lawyers seem to get comfortable with over time, which we need to purge from the profession at every available opportunity.

Am I squeaky clean here?  Probably not – I’m sure most of us have come close to, or crossed, these boundaries.  But let’s resolve to have a true commitment to rebuilding this profession as a noble one, and get rid of these and any other immoral behaviour that you can think of.

Is “immoral” too strong a word?  Perhaps… but if it’s something we do which causes harm to others, then I think it’s probably a valid word to go with.

Let’s begin…

Failing to Take Responsibility

Wait – is this really immoral?

Yes.

Because if it’s your responsibility, then it’s your responsibility. Not somebody else’s.  Not your secretary’s.  Not your clerk’s.

Sure, you might trust someone to deliver a good product, but if your name is on it then your trust is also your responsibility to ensure that you put the right amount of trust in the right kind of people.

If, when faced with adversity, your first instinct is to blame those under, above, or beside you – then you’re crossing the line.

Stand up, face facts, and accept that you have an important job to do.  It’s YOUR responsibility.

The White Lie

“I’m almost finished”.

“That’s right in front of me now”.

“It’s next on my list of priorities”.

Frequent phrases, easily used, and often untrue.

These are the polite platitudes that lawyers tell their clients without justification.  They are seen as harmless, but they are far from it. Especially as a colleague, if you’re prepared to lie to a client about those things, what are you prepared to lie to me about?

Double Standards

This one is more of an internal issue than one about clients, but it’s the “do as I say, not as I do” principle.

“Write shorter sentences” – followed by an amended letter which contains a sentence that never ends.

“You have to get things done faster” – followed by a 6 week pause to review a 2 page letter.

“We believe in work/life balance” followed by a scowling glance every time you leave the office at the actual end time.

You get the drift – if you’re going to have standards, then live them, breath them, and act them out.  Others will then have no excuse to call you a hypocrite.

Arrogance

You’re a servant.

You serve others, using knowledge that you acquired at great personal and financial cost.

The fact that you have a particular set of skills and knowledge doesn’t give you the right to expect that everyone will agree with you all the time about your recommendations and ideas.

So if you’ve told your client the risks of doing something, you’re sure they have understood you, and your client decides to do it anyway – don’t assume they are stupid.  Perhaps they are just taking a calculated risk.

Likewise, the fact that you have legal skills doesn’t mean you are the only indispensable part of your team.  Your partner has a skill set, your secretary has a skill set, and your clerks have a skill set.  Utilising a team to its full advantage involves both being self-aware about your own strengths and weaknesses, but also those of the others around you.

You’re not better than them.  You’re not even necessarily smarter or more knowledgeable.  You’re just a piece in a big puzzle.

And if none of this helps, then remember this one: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Failing to be Self-Aware

Lacking self-awareness can be  huge problem for lawyers.  In particular those who have colossal egos are particular susceptible to the problem.

If you don’t have sufficient appreciation for when you are in over your head, or taking on too much, or not very good at certain things, then you are going to be on the short track to burnout.

You’re also going to alienate your team, who have the benefit of looking in, and don’t necessarily wear the rose coloured glasses that you have on when you look int he mirror.

So take a bit of time now to honestly reflect on these questions: what are you best at?  what are you worst at? what are you mediocre at?

Then take a look at your practice, and see how many things you’re doing in the second and third categories which could better be done by others.

Then do it.

If in doubt, check in with someone you trust and ask them for an honest appraisal – and give them absolutely surety that you will be genuinely appreciative no matter what they say, because if you can’t do that then you already have a pride problem.

Refusing to Listen

I have three kids, and so my ability to listen is frequently a function of how many conversations I’m attempting to have at any given time.

Often this is a symptom of the issues above like pride and ego.  We simply think that what we have to say is so important that we don’t bother taking in what is being said to us.  Rather, we’re spending the time while the other person is talking trying to think about what we will say next.

News flash – that’s not listening.

You’re going to miss important things, you’re going to potentially miss out on good ideas, and you could well end up making people repeat things over and over because you’re simply not paying attention.

Show some respect, pay attention, and if you can’t pay attention then politely ask the person to wait until you’re ready.

Not Stepping Up

It’s hard to imagine that this is an immoral thing, right?  I mean, surely “not stepping up” is just neutral?

So tell me this, if it’s so neutral:

  • if a clerk who is not under your supervision comes to you for help, and you don’t help – is that neutral?
  • if your firm needs something done to avoid problems or increase profitability but you don’t put your hand up – is that neutral?
  • if someone is clearly struggling and you don’t offer to help – is that neutral?

See – it’s not so neutral after all, is it.

Sounds like a high bar, right?  Well it is

Being a lawyer is not a child’s game.  It’s not for the egotistical.  It’s not for the ignorant.  It’s for hard working, selfless, dedicated individuals who genuinely want what is best for others.

If that’s not you, then perhaps you’re in the wrong game.

Got any more immoral things lawyers do on your list?  Let me know in the comments!

Happy Lawyering!

  • Hi Chris
    You have described exactly how it is and how it was during my experiences in law firms. I think another one would be “taking credit where credit is not due”. Juniors working tirelessly to research and write articles and then partners stamping their name on it and then turning around at review time and asking why our billable hours were so low.

    • I will add though that although this is more an internal issue it does affect clients as there is this assumption that the partner is all over the clients matter when sometimes they are not. This affects a client’s trust when they realise and possibly the quality and /or outcome of the matter

    • Hi Stephanie – yep that’s a complex one. In a team environment who’s name ends up on something is often a complicated decision, but I agree that it’s a no-no to assert other peoples’ work as your own.

  • A real good article. A must for introspection. I have come across many who have one or more of these afflictions described in this article. While I try my best to fall in the last few “lines” of this article, I humbly agree that one has to keep on working on one’s own self and short-comings all the time. Thank you for this brilliant piece of writing.

  • Hi every one?! I totally agree with the seven steps but especially the last one because many people are wishing to be the good lawyer without hard working…… Etc.

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