Integrity as a Life-Long Commitment in the Legal Profession

Integrity: The indispensable element – the Fundamental Principles Leading to Trust, Reputation, Fair Play, Reliability, Adherence to Proper Conduct, Standards, Values.” – James Thomas.

Integrity is integral everywhere and, in every space, however, in the legal profession, it is a non – negotiable trait – one that the court needs to be satisfied with before one becomes a legal practitioner. Upon admission, one becomes part of the noble profession and, naturally, is expected to uphold the law and have the utmost regard to it. It is thus justifiable to expect every lawyer to be a person of integrity.

Experience has, however, shown that this is not always the case – some lawyers do not maintain their integrity. Amongst other things, money, greed, influence and pressure push lawyers to partake in activities that usually prove detrimental to their hard-reached goal of being lawyers. Hereinunder, we will zoom into some of the conducts/behaviors which lawyers usually take “lightly” yet may get them into trouble; demonstrate few measures/ways to deter such conducts whilst also reminding the practitioners of the gravity of maintaining integrity both in their personal and professional spaces.

“Trivial Misconducts” Not so Trivial for Legal Practitioners

Certain misconducts are generally perceived as trivial and easily pardonable for general members of the public and members of certain other professions. For legal practitioners, this does not hold true, as they are expected to uphold the law to the “t”. As explicated above, sometimes lawyers do get pushed by certain factors and end up “doing favors”; “helping friends/family/colleagues” – which requires them to transgress the perimeters of the law. A simple act of usage of official stamp – certifying or commissioning a document – can have dire consequences if utilized inappropriately. Very often, a friend or a colleague will ask you to certify and/or commission a document without producing the original document or the identity document. This may, in the near or distant future, backfire. It often happens that a lawyer will ask for a “favor” from his opponent – which, in a greater scheme of things, jeopardizes the interests of the client of the lawyer doing the favor. This is prevalent in cases where the other party is the State/State Organ or if the client is not so hands-on in the matter – thus leaving the practitioner “to run the show”. Doing each other favors as colleagues is applausable and advisable if it advances the interests of all parties involved/strengthens the legal position and contributes positively to the law. It then becomes imperative for legal practitioners to decide carefully on the favors they do for their colleagues.

Every legal practitioner is (or rather should) be aware of the statutory requirements one has to meet in order to appear in certain courts, for example, the High Court. It sometimes happens that a legal practitioner would appear without having the requisite rights just because “it will only take 5 minutes” or “it is just to take the order”. This, if reported, followed and investigated, can have adverse ramifications for the concerned practitioner. Same applies to the signing of certain court documents, for example, the pleadings. Lastly, advocates sometimes double book themselves with the hope that one matter will settle, and s/he will deal with the other. This is a pure example of taking a chance which may greatly affect the rights and interests of one or both of your clients. As such, advocates must always avoid being double briefed.

Much More Serious Offences

If committing a trivial offence can have serious ramifications, one can only imagine how much harm can be caused by more serious offences – for example fraud, bribe and corruption. As demonstrated above, selfishness and greed have, on a number of occasions, been a downfall of some lawyers.

There is a trail of cases where lawyers have been struck off the roll for offences you would not have imagined could be committed by lawyers. For example, an attorney under the employ of a firm running his/her own matters on the side. There are no proper books; no necessary accounts in place and totally no compliance with the relevant sources of the law regulating the offering of legal services to the public. Others would brief certain advocates and get a share from counsel’s invoice settlement. This is a typical “quid pro quo” example where the attorney feeds a specific counsel with briefs and, in turn, gets to share the fees.

One may argue that although this is an unacceptable practice, some advocates may be prompted to resort to it due to lack of briefs. Be that as it may, it is unacceptable and cannot be condoned in our profession. Some lawyers have, in the past, been reported to the Law Society for offences of bribery – bribing the court officials in order to “get things done”. The offence of bribery is quite grave – be it in your personal or professional realm – offering or accepting a bribe is grave and, if reported and investigated, can have severe consequences.

In certain cases, prominent in cases against the RAF – lawyers mislead their clients (deliberately so) by not reporting properly or at all on the progress (or lack thereof) of the matter; etc. Misleading of clients is unacceptable. Also, misleading your colleagues within your profession is unacceptable and is a breach of ethical duties.

These are but some of the prominent examples of trivial and serious offences that legal practitioners commit, and which has proved fatal to most hard-earned and promising careers. They speak to the core of one’s integrity. Temptations, selfishness and greed is part of human nature but, as a person of integrity, you should be able to resist these for a greater good. For aspiring and current legal practitioners, it is pivotal to always remember that being a person of integrity does not cease upon admission, but it is a life – long commitment.

Possible Measures

To curb the occurrence of the aforesaid offences, it is incumbent upon the LPC, courts and relevant role players to ensure that the integrity of the members is restored and maintained. This is not only important for the judiciary but for the public at large – the public must have full confidence and belief in everyone associated with the judiciary in one way or the other. It is also imperative that each lawyer, as the officer of the court, reports those disobeying the law and breaching their ethical duties. Silence about such acts is a loud support of unethical behaviors.

When someone reports illegal/unethical behavior, the LPC needs to protect that particular individual so as to encourage others to report such. Also, the LPC has to take robust decisions against perpetrators; courts’ decisions relating to such offences need to be harsh and send a very strong message to everyone, so as to deter further misconducts.

Different national and provincial organisations, for example, Black Lawyers Association, Women Lawyers Association, etc. need to prioritise integrity amongst their members; continuously encourage/remind members of significance of upholding the law at all times. Further, these organisations are well positioned to transmit information further down to law students. If the right mentality is cultivated and implanted at the university level, then we will be right on course to eradicating unethical/illegal behavior going forward. Most trivial offences can easily be obliterated through basic housekeeping, for example, lawyers producing their certificates of rights of appearance whenever they appear unless excused by a presiding judge, specifically.

Conclusion

Every legal practitioner will agree that a journey to becoming a member of the profession is never easy. This, on its own, should be a sufficient reason for every practitioner to never want to risk losing everything they have worked so hard for. Ours, as officers of the court, is to safeguard and uphold the law and, in so doing, we instill confidence in the general public. As a person who has been declared fit and proper to safeguard the law and legal interests, you need to maintain integrity – be it in your personal or professional space and this must be your life – long commitment.

This life – long commitment births long – lasting fruits.

Mthokozisi Maphumulo
Mtho Maphumulo
Associate | Litigation Attorney