Morality and Ethics, lessons from NatWest’s Farcical Farage issue
The furore over the proposed closure by Coutts Bank has drawn to the public attention the dangers of businesses having publicly stated values, ideals and purposes. It would be reasonable to assume that the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage is not someone that the Partners of Bennett Briegal would have much sympathy with, but importantly what the NatWest furore shows is the dangers of businesses trying to offer moral leadership.
Whilst Mr Farage’s political beliefs might put him at odds with Coutts’ perceived self-image, purpose and values, there is no doubt that some of their client base, just as some of the British public and much of media, will be loath to see the closure of a bank account for such moral judgment reasons against anyone. The denial of service is a dangerous path to start down. This of course is all a world away from ethics and judgment based upon objective criteria, rather than subjective criteria or views. As lawyers we make ethical judgments and indeed we offer an ethical helpline to help our law firm client base stay within the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA Standards and Regulations 2009), but that very different from pursuing the acceptance or rejection of clients on the basis of their political beliefs and how attractive or unattractive individuals may find them. Ethics around complying with, for example, anti-money laundering or measures to avoid modern slavery are pretty simple. By contrast where individuals have got to make a value judgment, which is subjective, then there is a real danger of morality judgments.
When advising clients on similar issues where they talk about their own team’s values and indeed their own team’s purpose, one of the challenges is getting them to see beyond the posturing for profit and the potential pandering to certain vocal groups, because that is moral judgment and morality changes over time. If you look at the history of activist shareholder-ism, it was in a rage in the 1980s and led to the advent of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and it gained greater prominence when adopted in 2004 as part of a United Nations initiative contained in a report called “who cares wins”. It is fairly easy to trace the emerging corporate acceptance in 2004 into the financial crisis of 2008 and the activism of today – whether it is law firms coming under pressure to not act for oil companies, the Law Society publishing climate change guidance to solicitors or equality diversity and inclusion agendas.
There are of course very strong and very persuasive elements for this kind of decision, meaning it is attractive to leaders who want to give their teams and their shareholders a purpose; it is superficially attractive to other clients who do not want to be associated with unpleasant or morally dubious business practices, whether that be the pollution of the environment, unlawful discrimination or, for example, the arms trade. The problem for law firm businesses is that they are not moral leaders; they should offer high standards and high values within their firms and they can share such actions and decisions as part of wider communications with those clients, shareholders and indeed staff members who want to engage in those issues and operate in consideration of them. There is however a startling difference when businesses, banks or law firms, or any other key provider, start to deny access to services on the basis of a customer or client’s perceived moral views or the perceived moral views of an organisation which probably have evolved over time in any event.
For a number of years we have been advising clients on how to focus on the ethical implications of who to offer service to, who to decline to act for, who to engage with in relation to important criteria – whether that be how to avoid damaging the planet through carbon usage or how to move beyond the Equality Act 2010 to ensure genuine equality in how you interact with customers, colleagues and perspective colleagues. I suspect that what the Coutts debacle does show us is that those decisions need to be made in a far more transparent manner and from a position of ethics looking at the rationale justification for any position rather than seeking to adopt broad brush moral judgments.
Our suggestion would be that law firm leaders should be vocal on issues they understand and are fully engaged in, they should not be acting as a pressure group or acting in relation to perceived reputational factors unless those reputational factors are anchored in objective criteria such as those produced by a regulator or by legislation.
If you are debating a moral or ethical conundrum and you would like some support as a law firm in doing so having focussed on legal ethics at post graduate level in the dim and distance past and having retained a practice focussed on ethics and legal ethics in practice ever since we would be delighted to help.
Get in touch if you want to schedule a session on our fixed fee helpline via email at Paul@BennettBriegal.co.uk