Making the Ethical Choice
This article has been provided by LawCare – health support and advice for lawyers
Ethics has become something of a buzzword of late. We have the option to invest our money with ethical banking schemes, buy ethical food — fair-trade or responsibly sourced — and even dispose of our waste ethically, by composting or recycling. Companies know that they can sell to us by appealing to our personal integrity and telling us that their particular product or service is the ethical choice. For example, they may plant trees so that they can make the claim to be “carbon neutral”. We all make day-to-day ethical decisions, however, and these are often not as clear-cut as choosing a fair-trade product over a non fair-trade one. From deciding whether to be honest in telling our spouse that a new item of clothing is not flattering, to telling the cashier that we have been given too much change, each of us must strive daily to balance our own comfort and well-being with our moral values.
Aristotle defined ethical behaviour as “to do [the right thing] to the right person to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way.” But he admitted that “this is not for everyone, nor is it easy.” Those of us who like to think that we are “good” people, doing our best to be contributors to our communities and live according to our moral values, naturally like to think that we are people with high standards, who make ethical decisions. For lawyers, who are bound by a strict set of rules akin to a moral code, this is even more vital. Our professional integrity is largely bound up in our ability to make ethical choices. Lawyers may be taught ethics as part of their professional training, but experience shows that many do not recognise a potential ethical dilemma arising in their practices.
An ethical or moral dilemma is often extremely complex. A ‘dilemma’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.” The roots can be traced back to Greek, di meaning “twice” and lemma meaning “premise”. Often an ethical choice is not clear-cut; we may find ourselves having to choose between two moral imperatives. In facing such situations, there are steps we can take to make the process easier:-
- Define the dilemma. Identify exactly what choices are before you. It may also help to look back at what led to this situation so that future conflicts of this nature can be avoided.
- Analyse the consequences of each choice, both positive and negative.
- Consider the action involved in each choice and how they measure up to your standards of integrity and dignity, regardless of the consequences.
- Research the situation as much as possible. Gather all relevant information, ask questions and establish the legal position. Refer to the SRA code of conduct, and call (in confidence) their Ethics Guidance Helpline [number] if necessary.
- Bring in other people. Obtain assistance from supervisors, specialist officers within the firm, or independent advice if it is your firm/chambers which is acting unethically.
- Keep careful and detailed notes of everything relating to the situation, bearing in mind that the time may come when your notes will be carefully scrutinised. At every stage, think about how you would feel if it all became public.
- Trust your instincts. If it feels wrong, it probably is. Put your clients’ best interests first.
- Make a decision, and once you’ve decided, don’t dither. Make sure all parties involved are aware of the difficult situation you’ve been placed in, and the reasons for the decision you have made. Carry through, and deal with any consequences as they arise.
If you are struggling with the pressures of life in practice, whether that involves making ethical decisions or coping with a heavy workload, too little work, bullying etc. LawCare is there to help.
Their free and completely confidential helpline is open 365 days a year, from 9.00 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. on weekdays and 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. on 0800 279 6888.
There is also a comprehensive website at www.lawcare.org.uk