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Which Way Does the Wind Blow? Ethics and In-house Lawyers

Content sponsored by Lawyers on Demand.

We work with hundreds of in-house lawyers and consultants across Asia and the world. Nowhere is ethics easy or simple, and few would argue that it is any easier in this region, where the speed of development ensures that there are no easy “pre-coded” approaches to business.  

By its nature, ethics can often be tricky, marginal, and fuzzy, and it can be too easy to move a conversation about ethics into the “too hard” basket, but it’s a fundamental component of law and business. 

We collaborated with two well-known professors, Steven Vaughan, professor of law and ethics at University College London and a former visiting professor at Melbourne University, and Richard Moorhead, professor of Law at Exeter University and a specialist in ethics, to produce a report on ethics and the role of in-house lawyers. This was designed to bring ethics into the forefront of your mind.

In our In Collaboration report, Professors Vaughan and Moorhead don’t shy away from asking the toughest questions of the profession, in-house lawyers, and you. How do you balance your professional duties and the commercial realities of business? How do you remain independent when your client is your employer? Are you allowed to challenge decision making in your organization? Do you always “do the right thing”? These can be uncomfortable questions, no doubt. But they should not be avoided, delayed, or sugar-coated.

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Showing ethical leadership in your organization isn’t just about ticking a box. It’s about being a real influencer on corporate culture, demonstrating ethics as a lived experience, and being a leader within your organization. It’s also about credibility — yours, the organization’s, and that of the legal profession.  

How professional duties apply to the in-house legal profession does diverge across jurisdictions, so it is not a homogenous conversation around the world. In England, Wales, and Australia, in-house lawyers are generally required to hold practicing certificates; therefore, they need to balance their professional duties with their in-house work.  

The landscape is even more complex in Asia. In Singapore and Hong Kong, in-house lawyers are not required to hold practicing certificates, and they are not bound by any professional conduct rules. This can lead to uncertainty, which is one of the key drivers in a lack of moral attentiveness and engagement. The added complexity of the business landscape is encapsulated well by an associate general counsel from a multinational based in Asia who said the following: 

“Sometimes an in-house lawyer may be unaware of things that are occurring in their company because of the complexity of global business in the 21st century. More and more legal challenges are arising, yet in-house lawyers are also expected to understand, monitor, check, and challenge all aspects of the business.”  

The report is not an academic paper or a legal judgment — it is a reminder about the role you play in your organization and the profession. Sometimes these roles are in tension, but we should not shy away from discussing points of divergence. We know that organizations demand that in-house lawyers bring commercial acumen; and many effective, well-respected, and ethical lawyers do possess a layer of keen business understanding.  

But we need those in-house professionals to remember their ethical obligations and duties. The role of ethics is fundamental to commerce. In today’s crowded, hyper-connected, and ever more transparent world, ethical behavior is key to building trust. And trust is your most valuable currency — both for you and your organization.  

This article is a part of ACC Docket's June 2020 Asian Briefings. Read the other features in the series on economic substance laws and emotional intelligence in the workplace.

About the Author

Rachel WrightRachel Wright is legal director of Lawyers on Demand (LOD) Asia.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.