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In-House Attorneys, Are You an Ethical Champion or Just Coasting?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 06, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When it comes to practicing in-house, attorneys occupy a unique position. Their duty is to their client, the company, but they are also bound by ethical responsibilities more so than other employees. And how in-house attorneys respond to ethical dilemmas depends on a variety of factors, from their own personal ethical standards to the infrastructure of the company in which they work.

Now, a new survey of 400 in-house lawyers by University College London has taken a detailed look at how corporate attorneys deal with ethical challenges -- including a taxonomy of in-house "ethical identities," ranging from ethical idealists raging against potential malfeasance to those who just shrug their shoulders and go along. Where do you think you fall?

Does Your Moral Compass Point Towards Capitulation?

The report, "Mapping the Moral Compass," provides a detailed look at how individual characteristics, team dynamics, and corporate infrastructure impact ethical decision making. And though we'd hate to trivialize the findings, the report makes it pretty easy.

"Mapping the Moral Compass" divides in-house attorneys into four basic categories. (If we were Buzzfeed, we'd make this an interactive quiz, kind of like finding out which Game of Thrones character you're most like.) They are:

1. The Capitulators

Do you prefer beaches to mountains? Long talks to quick arguments? If you had to eat just one type of food for the rest of your life, would it be Thai? Then you might be an in-house capitulator.

No, we kid. Capitulators are, as the name implies, less morally engaged than some of their peers. They are, according to the report, "reasonably morally attentive" but also "under ethical pressure." They often identify and consider moral challenges, but don't take much action to respond to them.

2. The Coasters

The coasters don't even know that they're under ethical pressure, perhaps making it easier to coast along. They have moderate to low levels of "moral attentiveness," according to the report, but no lower moral engagement.

3. The Comfortably Numb

This in-house attorneys "do not perceive high levels of ethical pressure and have low levels of moral attentiveness and higher moral disengagement," according to the report. They are, unsurprisingly, "the most concerning of the four groups," as they seem to have largely given up.

4. The Champions

Ethical champions face high levels of moral pressure yet maintain "the highest levels of moral attentiveness and the lowest levels of moral disengagement" despite these pressures. They're the Joan of Arcs of the corporate law department, but hopefully with less immolation in their future.

What Type of In-House Lawyer Are You?
Comfortably Numb
Survey Maker

Other Interesting Tidbits

The report also included some interesting insights into the in-house world. Here are the highlights, in brief:

  • Only 10-15 percent of in-house attorneys reported elevated ethical pressure.
  • Almost 50 percent of respondents reported actions begin taken against their legal advice on legally important matters.
  • Fifty-three percent of GC's reported directly to the CEO, 16 percent to the CFO, 10 percent to another board member, and six percent to a non-executive board member or the chair.
  • Thirty-six percent said that beneficial legal loopholes should be identified to aid the company.
  • Nine percent reported that saying "no" was not a good idea, "even when there is no legally acceptable alternative to suggest."

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