Thursday, May 8, 2014

Should business lawyers advise on moral issues too?

Last week I blogged about enterprise risk management,  lawyers, and their "obligations" to counsel clients about human rights risks based in part on statements by the American Bar Association and Marty Lipton of Wachtell, who have cited the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. I posted the blog on a few LinkedIn groups and received some interesting responses from academics, in house counsel, consultants, and outside counsel, which leads me to believe that this is fertile ground for discussion. I have excerpted some of the comments below:

 “Corporations do have risk with respect to human rights violations, and this risk needs to be managed in a thoughtful manner that respects human dignity. I did wonder, though, whether you see any possible unintended consequences of asking attorneys to start advising on moral as well as legal rights?”

“I agree. Great post. Lawyers should always be ready to advise on both legal risks and what I call "propriety". If a lawyer cannot scan for both risks, then he or she is either incompetent or has integrity issues. Companies that choose to take advice from a lawyer who is incompetent or has integrity issues probably have integrity issues too. I'm not sure I would leave leadership on ERM as a whole in the hands of a lawyer, unless that person has very good risk credentials.”

“As a lawyer, and a casinos and  banks counselor, recently, due to a Constitution reform in Mexico, I have been more involved in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the "Pacto de San Jose Costa Rica" (American Convention of HR) where you find out that the law in the best benefit of the citizen will be applicable, even over the Constitution. Of course that has an important impact over secondary laws and over many industries as well. So, you are absolutely right: "are we lawyers ready to be good counselors to our clients?". My personal thought is that we have to get involved in all those Human Rights laws and with the impact that they have with our country’s laws. That is where the world is going in the benefit of our species.”

“Exciting idea. I'm going to give a typical lawyer answer; it depends on the lawyer. This reflects what …. said above about competence. I would give a trifle more leeway for those that realize they need more research/education on the topic before advising on it.”

“I have a very strong opinion that the role of an in-house counsel or GC sitting on a Board or Exec. committee cannot be, and should not be, limited to pure legal matters, legal compliance and company legal risk, but rather need to play a key role on corporate business sustainability. Likewise, outside counselors should have this in the top of their agendas. Certainly this has never been the trend in Spain or in some EU countries, and involvement of senior executive legal counsel in corporate decisions relating CSR, Human Rights or similar issues that do have a clear impact on corporate ethics credentials and corporate integrity is now being slowly accepted and perceived as a great added value by the Boards. I am personally convinced that in the next years we will see an interesting evolution on this.”

I agree with the all of the comments, but particularly the last one. Here's ABA Rule 2.1 in it's entirety- 

Counselor Rule 2.1 Advisor 
"In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client's situation." 

When I taught professional responsibility, Rule 2.1 typically led to heated discussions. During my stint as a compliance officer, though I often engaged in "moral" and ethical discussions. As for unintended consequences, as the first commenter points out, there could be many. People's "morals" may differ, just as companies have different "cultures." Companies with different cultures operating in countries with different cultures- now that's a whole other layer of complexity. Lawyers and/or compliance officers may not want to "rock the boat" with “moral” discussions and may be more comfortable sticking to black letter law. When it comes to human rights where some multinationals may be dealing with non-binding "soft law" or operate in countries where the binding law is not enforced, what "moral" yet practical advice should lawyers give to their clients on the ground?

These are topics that I plan to write about and that I enjoyed discussing with students in courses I have taught in the past on corporate governance, compliance and corporate social responsibility. Next week I will attend a conference at Columbia University on teaching business and human rights, and I am sure these issues will be front and center. Clearly, based on discussions on LinkedIn, they already are for many practicing lawyers.

 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2014/05/should-business-lawyers-advise-on-moral-issues-too.html

Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia L. Narine, Teaching | Permalink

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