Lawyers, like most professionals, have to abide by certain codes of conduct.
If they act in a way that is considered unprofessional or that contravenes professional guidelines, they can end up facing disciplinary action and potentially even losing their licence to practice.
Although professional misconduct is rare, it does happen, and the consequences can be severe.
As lawyers deal with the law, they are expected to act within it, and to uphold certain values, including honesty and integrity.
If lawyers don’t uphold ethical standards, it can reduce public confidence in the legal profession, and have serious repercussions for their reputation and the credibility of their employers.
What guidelines do lawyers have to abide by?
According to the NSW Law Society, solicitors and other legal practitioners are required to abide by a strict code of conduct, which covers all aspects of their job, including the way they communicate with clients, confidentiality, how they charge clients, and what they do with the money they receive.
Lawyers are prohibited from engaging in any conduct that could demonstrate that they are not a fit and proper person to practice law, or that could bring the profession into disrepute.
This can include fraudulent behaviour, misappropriation of money, deception, and inappropriate behaviour towards clients.
What can happen if lawyers don’t abide by these rules?
In a recent case, a defence lawyer working for a criminal law firm in Sydney was struck off the roll of practising lawyers after he was found to have been misappropriating funds which were intended to be placed in the law firm’s trust account.
Further investigations revealed that the lawyer was suffering personal problems and that much of the money diverted into his personal account was spent on gambling and drugs, habits which were believed to be a result of depression and anxiety that he was experiencing at the time.
The lawyer in question was found to have taken on clients through the law firm he was working for without creating a file for them in the firm’s system.
He was found to have provided his personal banking details for money to be deposited, instead of the firm’s trust details.
This is a direct contravention of the guidelines for legal practices, which state that funds obtained by a law firm must be sent to the law firm’s trust account as soon as is practicable.
The lawyer’s dishonesty towards his employer was also considered a reason for concern, as by bypassing their system and telling his employers that the client had decided to go elsewhere, he was acting fraudulently and dishonestly towards both his clients and his employer.
The misconduct took place during 2011 and 2012, and the lawyer gave up his practising certificate in April 2012 once the misconduct was revealed.
He co-operated with the investigation, and has since sought treatment for his gambling and drug addictions.
In a ruling made earlier this month, his name was officially removed from the roll of solicitors and he was required to pay all of the Law Society’s costs.
Lawyer caught cheating in ethics exam
In another recent case, a lawyer was struck off after cheating in – of all things – an ethics exam by hiding papers in his clothing.
The lawyer was initially refused entry into an ethics examination for barristers due to the large volume of papers he was carrying and his refusal to show them to invigilators.
He left the examination room, went outside, and was caught on CCTV separating the papers and hiding some of them down his trousers and under his jumper.
He then went back in, but was refused entry to the exam room.
A few days later he was questioned and admitted to cheating once he was made aware of the CCTV footage.
In June, the Law Society ruled that he was not a “fit and proper person” to stay on the roll of supreme court lawyers, and he was struck off and ordered to pay costs.
Harassing a client
In 2013, a Ballina solicitor was struck off the roll after falsifying trust account records and harassing a female client with more than 30 voice and text messages in a 24-hour period.
He was also alleged to have forged a signature on a statutory declaration with the intention of misleading the Local Court of NSW.
It’s important to the credibility of the legal profession that its members are seen to uphold professional standards and act with integrity.
Members of the public often require the services of a lawyer at a time when they are going through stress or personal difficulties, and can therefore potentially be vulnerable to exploitation.
The guidelines are in place to protect the public, and to act as a deterrent to the minority who may be tempted to break the rules.
By setting and maintaining high standards, the Law Society of NSW can help protect the public against the few disreputable lawyers out there, and help maintain the reputation and public confidence in the majority of reputable and professional legal practitioners.