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Research: A quarter of law students would be willing to falsify time sheets

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Ethical compass of future lawyers called into question

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New academic research has found a quarter of law students would be hypothetically willing to misstate information on work time sheets for personal and business gain.

Led by UCL law professor Richard Moorhead, the study claims its law student respondents demonstrated a “propensity to behave unethically in a legal context”.

The 441 students in England and Wales that took part in the study, called ‘The ethical identity of law students’, were asked if — hypothetically — they’d be willing to bill hours counter to company policy if it meant they’d receive a £3,000 bonus.

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Respondents answered using a seven-point scale: a score of one meaning “very unlikely”; a score of seven meaning “very likely”.

Though Moorhead and co did point out “the majority of respondents” answered one or two, the study noted:

[A]lmost one in four respondents in England and Wales (24%) were likely to claim the hours.

These results were quite similar to those observed in American law students, 569 of which also took part in the study.

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The research does, however, then go on to suggest this figure may be higher in reality:

When we have presented these results to students and colleagues they suggest quite strongly that the results under-estimate the likelihood of unethical conduct. This intuitive response fits with the view that these findings would be subject to a bias which may inhibit admissions of likely unethical conduct, even though the survey is anonymous.

Other key findings from the study include the claim female law students are more ethical than male law students. Apparently women “had a stronger sense of moral identity” in comparison to male respondents, had “a lower sense of entitlement” and exhibited “a greater likelihood of wanting to be seen as a moral individual”.

Some of the research compared law students based on their chosen future practice area and — perhaps unsurprisingly — it found:

Intending business lawyers had (or had developed) a values profile consistent with weaker ethical propensity.

This means law students with their sights set on businesses/companies had a “lower level of moral attentiveness” than those intending to forge a career in government or work for individuals. Who would have guessed it?