The Moral Compass of In-House Counsel

There is a growing body of scholarship that addresses the behavioral aspects of in-house lawyers and how they function. Some of the more prominent scholars in the area include Professor Sung Hui Kim (see here and here) and Professor Donald Langevoort (see here and here). Now comes a new and important study of in-house counsel in the United Kingdom, entitled Mapping the Moral Compass: The Relationships Between In-House Lawyers’ Role, Professional Orientations, Team Cultures, Organisational Pressures, Ethical Infrastructure, and Ethical Inclination.  The study, which surveyed 400 respondents from England and Wales, provides keen insights into how in-house lawyers perceive the ethical dimensions of their work.

The abstract of the study provides more detail:

This report provides a unique profile of real differences within the in-house community. We examine individual and team orientations to the in-house role; the invocation of professional principles; and ethical infrastructure, ethical pressure and relationships with the employer. We relate these to externally validated indicators of ethical inclination: (i) moral attentiveness (the extent to which people deal with problems as moral problems and the extent to which people identify moral problems); and (ii) moral disengagement (the extent to which people are inclined to morally disengage to behave unethically without feeling distress). It is as rich a picture of what it means to be an ethical in-house lawyer as has ever been attempted.

Through this research we profile the characteristics of individuals, teams and environments most associated with a stronger or weaker inclination to behave ethically. It is important to emphasise that this mapping of the ‘moral compass’ of in-house lawyers shows that ethicality is associated with individual and professional notions of the in-house role but also with team orientations and the broader organisational environment. Ethicality is both a systemic and individual phenomenon.

To help understand the diversity in ethical identities, we identify four main groups of in-house lawyers (described in more detail in Chapter 9):

• the Capitulators (who are reasonably morally attentive but are under ethical pressure and are less morally engaged);

• the Coasters (who do not perceive themselves as under ethical pressure and have moderate-low levels of moral attentiveness but not lower moral disengagement);

• the Comfortably Numb (who do not perceive high levels of ethical pressure and have low levels of moral attentiveness and higher moral disengagement – the most concerning of the four groups); and,

• the Champions (who are under the highest levels of ethical pressure but retain the highest levels of moral attentiveness and the lowest levels of moral disengagement).

Our research suggests that ethical in-house practice is about individual understandings of the role (orientations towards commerciality; ethicality; independence; being a mere advisor; and exploiting uncertainty); it is about the approach of teams and the organisations those teams work in; it is about understanding and drawing on all the obligations of professionalism; and, it is about building a better infrastructure to manage the tensions within the role.

The report is part of a larger project, entitled Ethical Leadership for In-House Lawyers (more here).

For those who are interested, two of the authors of the study, Richard Moorhead and Steven Vaughan, will be discussing their work at NYU Business School on July 14 at 5:00 pm. Details are available here.

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