19 January 2021
There’s nothing like a crisis to focus attention on what really matters.
When we all went into lockdown in 2020, QLS Council had absolute clarity of purpose – we had to mobilise the resources of the Society to support the profession to survive and thrive in uncertain times.
In 2021, while the pandemic continues, there is another challenge on the horizon. It’s not a crisis of the same degree, but it does affect all of us. The reputation of our profession is being tested by a number of lawyers coming before the Courts as a result of Crime and Misconduct Commission investigations.
The golden rule of our criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence, so I will not comment about any individual case.
Rather, I want to explore how we as a profession can use this challenge to focus our attention on what really matters. At the heart of our profession lies a concept that is at once incredibly simple and extraordinarily powerful: integrity.
Every single one of us, upon admission, took an oath or affirmation. The modern expression of this reminds us of our central obligation to the rule of law to “truly and honestly conduct myself, in the practice of a lawyer of this court, according to law to the best of my knowledge and ability.”
To fulfil that oath we recognise and adhere to certain fundamental duties:
- our paramount duty to the court and the administration of justice
- acting in the best interests of the client and putting their interests ahead of our own
- being honest and courteous in all dealings
- delivering legal services competently, diligently and as promptly as reasonably possible
We chose to enter a profession and publicly make these commitments. We did not choose the easy path. We voluntarily agreed to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that of other people operating businesses.
It’s not surprising then, that when one of us does not meet those standards, it’s newsworthy. Indeed, it would be a sad indictment on our profession if it went unremarked. But with every report of allegations of a lawyer not meeting our standards, the whole of the profession suffers in the community’s eyes. So what can we do to combat this?
Hold each other to account
We collectively hold each other to account and safeguard the integrity of our profession through the regulatory activities of the Queensland Law Society. The first Queensland Law Society was founded in 1873 and its first objective was to protect the public by suppressing dishonourable practice. Queensland Law Society has continued to this day with a strong role promoting the self-regulation of the profession.
Although we are no longer the sole regulator, we do still issue practising certificates, regulate trust accounts and operate the Fidelity Guarantee Fund to compensate people for defaults on trust accounts. This work is carried out by QLS Staff, QLS members sitting on the Professional Conduct Committee and the Committee of Management for the Fidelity Guarantee Fund, and QLS Councillors sitting as the Executive Committee.
Alongside this regulation, we provide support to practitioners to meet the required standard through our Ethics and Practice Centre, Trust Accounts Consultancy Service and Senior Counsellor Service. Our aim is to offer support so every solicitor, every day, can live up to the commitment they made on admission.
Know the data
The statistics prove that the problem is not endemic:
- The Legal Services Commission reported 30 prosecutions were finalised in the 2019-20 financial year – not all of these related to solicitors and the LSC also prosecutes barristers and unlawful operators. This means that the prosecutions were of 0.2% of solicitors in Queensland.
- In 2020, Queensland Law Society took disciplinary actions, as are available to it under the Legal Profession Act, against 61 practitioners. This is 0.45% of the total number of Practising Certificates issued during 2019-20.
- The Society also undertook external intervention in just 18 law practices in 2020 – external intervention is a process to protect the interests of clients, the public or lawyers.
It is only a very small minority of practitioners who are not meeting our standards, and that minority is dealt with through the regulation our profession has in place.
Walk the talk
Like everyone else we are judged by what we do, not what we say. The bigger the gap, the more harshly we will be judged by the community.
So it is up to each one of us, to do our bit to enhance the reputation of the profession by the way we each practise.
At our core, we are trusted advisors providing legal advice, but also practical wisdom and sound judgement. We can be trusted because we are fiduciaries, we will always put our client’s interests ahead of our own.
The value that our clients derive from this is tangible, and not replicated by any other service provider. Even as artificial intelligence automates some parts of our work, there is no artificial wisdom that can supplant our role as trusted advisors—it’s a strong differentiator for us in a crowded services market.
But because we are human, from time to time, some of us will fail to live up to the promises we made on admission to the profession.
This breach of trust won’t be remedied by what we say, only by what we, collectively as a profession, do.
In these times it is even more important for us each to demonstrate integrity and commitment to professional values in all our dealings: with our clients; with our colleagues; with the court; and with the community.
We, who did not choose the easy path, rely on each other.
In 2021, I would like to highlight the value we provide to our clients and the community when we live up to our professional values. Although bad news sells, I would like to gather our good news stories to share with each other, and the community. If you have a good news story about the value your practice has delivered by living up to professional values, email me at email@example.com.
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