The Ethical Role of Lawyers

Ethics goes beyond the law - it requires an internalisation of values.

11 October 2016

The Ethical Role of Lawyers


Lawyers are more likely than other professionals to experience a conflict between their clients’ interests and the public interest. This is due to the fact that they often deal with those who have fallen foul of the law, or with those who want the most beneficial interpretation of the law.

“Dealing with such challenges appropriately requires sound judgement and significant wisdom,” says Kris Dobie, Manager: Organisational Ethics Development, The Ethics Institute.  “The question is whether there is sufficient focus on developing character and wisdom in lawyers as part of their studies and professional development.”

The relationship between the law and ethics

Earl Warren once said: "In a civilised life, law floats in a sea of ethics." This quote points to the close interrelationship between the law and ethics.  “Most laws are written to support ethical principles that are widely held by a society. At the same time the law needs to be supported by a basic ethical environment to be able to function effectively,” says Dobie.

The legal system is not an island.  When there is significant corruption in society, the legal system struggles to give access to justice. 

It is also important to point out that ethics goes beyond the law.  Adv. Thuli Madonsela, made the point that if someone has not been found guilty in a court of law, it is no indication of them being an ethical person. It just means that they are not a criminal, and the two things are not the same. 

“In the same way, being legally compliant means doing the right thing when someone is watching, whereas being ethical means doing the right thing when no-one is watching,” Dobie adds. “Ethics also goes beyond the law in that it requires an internalisation of values.”

The legal profession needs to take a two-pronged approach:

Need to talk about what it means to be a ‘good’ lawyer

Lawyers operate in highly challenging environments that require judgement and wisdom to navigate.  “If we want the law to be an instrument of justice there needs to be more talk of the moral character of ‘good’ lawyers and not just their intellectual abilities.  And the language that we should use should be moral, and not legal language,” says Dobie.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that the practices (such as the legal profession) are the foundation of societal virtues.  By being a good lawyer, you are constantly in a dialogue about what it means to be a good lawyer, but very importantly, you are also at the same time creating the kind of society where people can thrive and develop their virtues. 

Need to promote the reform of the legal institutions and judiciary

Aristotle said one of the preconditions for living a virtuous life is living in a just society.  If our legal system does not ensure justice, where can people turn to? 

Our legal system is dependent on an ethical environment, but at the same time, the legal system plays a crucial part in creating a just and ethical society. Societies with severe corruption challenges are however likely to experience an onslaught on the integrity of the justice system, as those with vested interests aim to destabilise the system. 

“Leaders in the legal professions, including the judiciary, have a responsibility to promote a system where the public can get justice, but also where lawyers themselves can practice their profession without pressure to compromise their ethical standards. This will require moral courage and wisdom,” concludes Dobie.  

“It will not be an easy process, and it will not be quick, but it is important.”