The legal profession involves balancinga client's interests with one's moral principles, seeking financial gain, and maintaining professional ethics. It is also a highly segmented profession, with each segment playing by its own distinct rules.
Law students develop their core professional values while still at law school, and their attitudes are often as cynical as those of practicing lawyers, suggests Anton Kazun based on his research entitled 'The Lawyer's Choice Between Profit and Professional Responsibility: Developing Individual-Level Control' published in the Economic Sociology journal.
The author found that many law students develop a cynical attitude towards their profession, with this attitude peaking in their undergraduate years.
The author examined potential factors influencing future lawyers' values and found the university environment to have the greatest effect – it is the particular school that matters, as well as the student's commitment to studies and involvement in broader campus life.
Kazun surveyed some 300 law students in three Russian universities: the HSE and the Peoples' Friendship University (PFUR), both in Moscow, and the North-Western Branch of the Russian Law Academy (NWB RLA) in St. Petersburg.
The study found that more than half of the students surveyed (66%) did not consider the legal profession to be a model of honest and ethical conduct, and 60% believed that other colleagues’ opinions do not really matter to a practicing lawyer. However, cynical attitudes are not yet firmly established in students, as shown by some inconsistency in the responses: even though many students are already disillusioned about the moral aspects of their future profession, almost two-thirds (63%) would refuse to work with someone who violates professional ethics.
In a series of questions, students were asked whether they were prepared to work for public good rather than private gain, and most respondents chose in favour of private gain, even if it meant leaving their profession – 61% of the surveyed law students said they would abandon their legal practice if offered a higher-paying job.
Other responses also reveal rather cynical attitudes: two-thirds (66%) agree that lawyers make money by taking advantage of loopholes in the law, and some 40% would be prepared to work for a criminal if the fee was high enough.
The study suggests that the type of university and the campus atmosphere both make a difference in how law students view the ethics of their profession.
Thus, a higher proportion of respondents at the NWB RLA are concerned about what the professional community would think of them, and would not work with an unethical colleague.
More students at the PFUR said that a lawyer should focus more on private gain, that a court verdict is more important than finding the truth, and would agree to work for a criminal.
The HSE law students are not as cynical as the PFUR students, but not as value-oriented as the RLA students. HSE undergraduates are more likely to feel that other people distrust the legal profession and more willing to give up legal practice in favour of an alternative, higher-paid job.
Kazun suggests that a number of factors may have an effect on the responses. For example, the idea of never using their law degree and taking another job instead may seem more acceptable to students at the HSE Faculty of Law where tuition is supported by grants – as opposed to the PFUR students who pay for their studies.
The study found that extracurricular activity and striving for academic excellence both increase the likelihood that a future lawyer would place serving society over making money; activists and A-graders tend to be more altruistic in their responses. Kazun suggests that "someone who spends more time with their classmates is more likely to embrace professional ethics, to have a better perception of their future profession, and to care for their reputation over and above making money." Universities can contribute by serving as centres of attraction for their students and by making an effort to build a positive image of professions, not limited to classroom learning.
Professional ethics, however, are largely influenced by legal professional environments which impose their own, often unwritten, rules of the game. In addition to this, the legal profession is highly segmented, with corporate lawyers, attorneys, judges, and prosecutors each playing by their own rules and creating an atmosphere which may cause a novice lawyer to reconsider his or her ideas about their profession.
Kazun notes that value formation in legal practice merits additional research, particularly in Russia, where such studies are lacking.