Letter of the Day: Restoring public trust in attorneys
THE EDITOR, Sir:
There can be no doubt that the legal profession has taken a battering in recent weeks following the arrests of a number of attorneys, some with more than 20 years in practice, accused of defrauding clients of millions of dollars.
Despite the fact that the lawyers charged are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that the number of lawyers detained represent fewer than one per cent of those licensed to practice in Jamaica, the public's trust in them has been considerably shaken. While the president of the Jamaican Bar Association has tried to allay fears that the profession has descended into dishonesty, more can be done to restore its image and the public's confidence.
First, the General Legal Council (GLC) can hasten the launch of the Compensation Fund which it was mandated to establish and administer under the Legal Profession Act. Knowing that funds have been set aside to compensate clients in the event of fraud or negligence resulting in loss would help reassure the public that they will be protected in the event of such loss.
Second, there needs to be greater public education about how the profession is regulated. Contrary to what many may think, lawyers are among the most rigorously policed professionals in Jamaica. There is a strict code of conduct outlined in the Canons of Professional Ethics, which the public can view at http://www.generallegalcouncil.org/.
Any attorney, including the chairman of the GLC, can be reported to the said GLC for perceived breaches/acts of misconduct. Lawyers must engage in continuing legal education, submit accountants' reports, and apply for practising certificates every year in order to operate.
Third, the profession needs to pay closer attention to business best practices such as business planning, risk management and customer service excellence. Lawyers must recognise that they are involved in the provision of services for a profit, which requires creating a comprehensive plan for viability and sustainability, taking into account the economic environment and increasing competition.
The adoption of risk management as a discipline would help them to better identify, assess and manage risks, including financial and cash flow management. For example, using licensed financial institutions as intermediaries to hold funds in trust in land deals would considerably reduce the likelihood of misappropriation. Lawyers could also improve their image by demonstrating greater humility and respect for clients as valued customers, before, during and after the provision of legal services.
Fourth, the profession should strengthen its advocacy and redouble efforts to improve the efficiency of the justice system. Where colleagues are charged with fraud, lawyers must encourage fair and speedy resolution of the cases to win the public's trust. Attorneys must also recognise that a slow and ineffective justice system creates an environment of frustration and hostility between themselves and clients and diminishes the public's confidence in their effectiveness.
Finally, the Bar might consider the implementation of a formal mentoring programme for young attorneys and support the efforts to improve career planning for prospective entrants. Too many persons are entering the profession unprepared for the responsibilities, challenges and harsh economic realities that preclude it from being a reliable vehicle to wealth creation.
We should all be reminded that lawyers play an integral role in maintaining the social fabric of our nation, generally, and the administration of justice, in particular. It is in our best interest to ensure that they maintain the public's trust.