- A new legal ethics textbook by a Charles Sturt University academic helps law students realise they have a unique social responsibility
- Ethics is dynamic and interesting and essential to every area of legal practice
- Learning to think ethically and behave altruistically is vital for every law graduate
A new book by a Charles Sturt University law academic examines the rules of professional responsibility and unpacks what is ethical conduct required of legal practitioners in Australia.
The book, Practical Legal Ethics, by lawyer and Lecturer in Law Ms Kim Bailey in the Charles Sturt Centre for Law and Justice, provides an accessible explanation of the topics required of ‘Ethics and Professional Responsibility’ subjects in accredited undergraduate law degrees.
Ms Bailey said Practical Legal Ethics explains the professional conduct rules required in Australian legal practice focusing on the Legal Profession Uniform Law regime, as adopted in New South Wales, Victoria, and soon to be adopted by Western Australia.
“The book relates statutory rules and legal principles to professional practice and addresses the basics of compliance, but it also explores contexts in which the conduct rules are silent, but where ethical behaviour is still important,” she said.
“The text will complement how I teach, which requires students to take the ethical ‘rules’ and apply those in a contextualised problem-solving approach.”
Ms Bailey said she found that if ethics are taught in a manner that is divorced from the realities of legal practice, this subject becomes dry and very boring – a long list of rules.
“I wanted to show students that the law in this area is dynamic, interesting and essential to every area of legal practice,” she said.
“We explore how ethical behaviour is influenced by intrinsic and extrinsic values, but above all must be guided by the rule of law. The rule of law is what makes our society fair, accountable and free.”
Ms Bailey, who received the Executive Dean’s Award for teaching excellence this year, comes from a career in insurance litigation and is all too familiar with the ethical complexities of legal practice.
“While the book addresses the mandated areas of a legal ethics subject in a Bachelor of Laws, it comes from a perspective of someone who has actually practiced, and who knows that every day there are ethical choices lawyers must make,” she said.
“The legal profession is one of the most highly regulated professions in Australia. Despite this, public perception of lawyers’ honesty and ethical conduct is at the lowest it has been in 20 years, according to a 2021 Roy Morgan survey.
“The survey showed that only 26 per cent of Australians think lawyers behave honestly and ethically. The reality is more complex. Most lawyers do behave ethically, however, there is no doubt that what lawyers ought to do and what they are perceived to do are very different in the public’s mind.”
This may be attributable to examples often heard of via the media, such as ‘the big transgressions’ of legal practitioners such as ‘Lawyer X’ (Nicola Gobbo, in Victoria) and her breaches of confidentiality, former High Court justice Dyson Heydon with allegations of sexual harassment, or Leo O’Brien who took $6 million of trust money from deceased clients.
“While these cases are relevant, they are uncommon. What we often don’t realise is the practice of law is fraught with everyday ethical decisions that are small, but are just as important,” Ms Bailey said.
“Learning to think ethically and behave altruistically is vital for every law graduate.
“This message permeates the book and I have also included a chapter exploring the legal profession’s duty to provide access to justice, considering how each lawyer has a part to play in addressing disadvantage and access to legal services.
“Because lawyers, justice and the integrity of the law are all interrelated, it is imperative that we help law students realise they have a unique social responsibility. They have the ability to make real change.”
Ms Bailey said she always tell her students, “Legal practice remains a profession and not just a business. The rules of professional conduct are your compass, not your burden”.
In the book, principles of law are explained with selected case examples. The chapters are supported by revision questions and answers, tutorial discussion questions, and topic mind-maps. The topics covered include:
- an overview of the regulatory framework under the Uniform Law
- admission to practice
- duties to the client
- conflicts of interest
- confidentiality and privilege
- basic trust accounting concepts
- cost disclosure requirements
- duties to the court
- duties to other practitioners and third parties
- an overview of the complaints and disciplinary process under the Uniform Law
- a lawyer’s role in access to justice.
Practical Legal Ethics is published by Thomson Reuters and is available for sale online.