UCL legal academic discovers corporate lawyers are missing the ethics gene

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By Jonathan Ames on

UCL boffin produces an image of what good legal profession values should look like — but finds most commercial law firms are “weak” on the point


A leading UK law school academic has solved a riddle haunting top commercial solicitors’ firms for nearly as long as there have been lawyers: what do ethics look like?

In a recently published paper, Professor Richard Moorhead of the law faculty at University College London has produced a visual depiction of what ethical lawyers should be aiming for in terms of values.

And the image — published in Moorhead’s pithily titled treatise “Corporate lawyers: values, institutional logics and ethics” — is striking.


The game-changing image is based on “values tools” concocted by Shalom Schwartz, who any fool know is a US-born social psychologist currently camped out at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

According to Moorhead — who once chaired the long-since defunct Law Society Trainee Solicitors Group — the basic core of Schwartz’s theory is that “each person’s values can be broadly understood across 10 dimensions”.

Moorhead then applies those dimensions to a group of 100 lawyers, consisting of commercial private practitioners and senior in-house counsel, comparing them with a group of ordinary non-lawyer Europeans.

“To simplify somewhat,” writes Moorhead (which is a good job, because Legal Cheek was already beginning to get lost), “both groups tend to value universalism (fairness or justice) and benevolence (the interests of our in group or those close to us) highly.”

Moorhead continues:

The lawyers value self-direction (the ability to think things through and decide things for themselves) significantly more highly. They also value stimulation and (socially recognised) achievement more. Similarly, they value power (which overlaps strongly with economic rewards) a bit more and security, tradition and conformity a good deal less.

Some 4,500 words later, Moorhead gets to the point, which is that “ethical leadership in lots of [commercial law] firms is … generally weak”. In other words, that graph needs to be super-sized and plastered on the walls of partnership management committee lavatories across the City.

Global law firms, says Moorhead, “should not assume — as many do — ethics is safe because they have chosen the right sorts and those right sorts had training on it on the LPC [Legal Practice Course].”

Moorhead finishes with a quote from an associate described as working at a “leading law firm”.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across any support or encouragement on [the ethics] front,” said the poor, miserable bugger “…it’s assumed that you’ve … gone through your ethics training …and you are meant to know it all. Nothing has ever, really ever, been said to me …from the partners or in terms of training that in any way encourages it or supports it.

Just keep looking at the graph, mate.