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In-house lawyers 'should challenge unethical conduct'

Posted by: Laurence Simons 27/02/13

The role of in-house lawyers in North America requires legal professionals that are willing to stand up for their beliefs and push back against unethical actions from their employer, according to an expert in the industry.

With general counsel often seen as the final gatekeepers for avoiding corporate scandals, their position is becoming even more critical to many firms - especially in the current climate, where it seems as if businesses are being dragged over the coals in terms of regulatory and financial errors.

As the public and regulatory bodies cast a beady eye over corporate practices, it is important that in-house legal teams do not shrink off into the shadows shaking their heads disapprovingly, but make their objections as clear as possible, said Cheryl Foy in a blog post for Canadian Lawyer Magazine.

Ms Foy - university secretary and general counsel at UOIT in Oshawa, Ontario - admitted that it can be difficult for in-house lawyers to speak out as much as they would like to, given that they are very much part of an organisation and may feel that it would be disloyal or disruptive to kick up a fuss.

However, creating a small problem is preferable to sticking your head in the sand and dealing with a major one further down the line, she reiterated.

"If we can divert the traffic at the point before others are too invested, and there’s too much at stake, we can do so with the least damage to relationships, egos, and with the least conflict," the in-house expert declared.

The urge to conform to what colleagues or even superiors expect is natural but should be resisted if in-house legal staff are to perform their role as gatekeepers, with critical thinking a key attribute needed to perform this difficult role, Ms Foy added.

However, help must come from the top as well as from the lawyers themselves.

"Organisational leaders must be confident, secure, and willing to accept dissenting opinions in order to create such a culture. Furthermore, these leaders have to have vision and an understanding that disagreement is not disloyalty and an employee's commitment to doing the right thing for the organisation is a commitment to be fostered above all else," she stated.

This follows on from a report indicating that Canadian in-house lawyers need to work on their knowledge of data security procedures, with the legal teams and their technology counterparts still not working together as effectively as they could do to avoid any regulatory clashes.