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Research shows in-house lawyers pushed to the brink of illegality

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Young lawyers might fancy the nine-to-five routine of corporate legal departments, but an ethical swamp awaits

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Corporate in-house legal departments have become increasingly attractive to younger lawyers as they appear to offer decent wedge for considerably less stress than is on the cards at the coalmines of private practice.

But research released today suggests that while billing targets can be forgotten, in-house lawyers face mounting stress elsewhere as legal departments can be ethical grey zones.

According to a group of academics, young lawyers going in-house will face a growing and unresolved ethical minefield that can have them occasionally bordering on illegality.

The “appetite for legal risk,” says the research team from law schools at University College London and Birmingham University, “involves accepting, even welcoming, tolerance for conduct which may be, or even may be likely to be, unlawful”.

Leading the project were Professor Richard Moorhead, UCL’s director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Birmingham University law lecturer Steven Vaughan.

They maintained that in-house lawyers increasingly find their corporate responsibilities were “sometimes in tension with the professional obligation to promote the rule of law and the guidance to solicitors that they must treat the public interest in the administration of justice as definitive of conflicts between professional obligations”.

Commented Morrehead:

“Our research and some anecdotal commentary suggest that the role of general counsel is under increasing pressure. Their professional ethical boundaries are not as well drawn as may be necessary for the increasingly sophisticated world of in-house work.”

Vaughan continued:

“The more-for-less challenge and the need to be commercial and influential within a business context can pose significant ethical challenges for in-house lawyers. They and their businesses are not always well prepared for such challenges.”

Other key findings from the research showed there was no shared sense of a correct approach to legal risk at in-house departments as general counsel were not clear or confident about their approach, or the best approach, to legal risk management.

Likewise, while objectivity and independence are necessary for risk assessment to be accurate and useful to businesses, they can conflict with the pressures on in-house lawyers to be commercial team players. According to the researchers, “there are overt pressures and implicit biases at work that may sometimes undermine objectivity”.

Over the next few months, the research team will hold a series of town hall-style meetings with general counsel and other in-house lawyers around the UK. They will also conduct a round of structured interviews and an on-line survey to expand their existing findings.