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Only a small percentage of UK lawyers are strongly opposed to taking on ethically-questionable mandates, a survey of the profession has found, even though the majority believe doing so can damage a law firm’s reputation.

Just 11% of leading UK lawyers said ethics should be a major consideration in accepting new clients in the latest Legal Week/EJ Legal Big Question survey. The majority (66.5%) said law firms should consider instructions from controversial regimes or corporate clients on a case-by-case basis.

A sizeable number argued that the right to legal advice outweighed firms’ ability to judge which clients they act for. A small percentage (5.5%) argued that firms should never decline mandates on ethical grounds, while a further 17% said firms should only consider declining such mandates in extreme circumstances.

The results come despite fears from a majority (86%) of top lawyers that acting for controversial clients can damage a law firm’s reputation. Only 2% thought advising controversial clients made no difference to a firm’s reputation.

Although the figures show little support for turning away mandates, the results do a show a growing acceptance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives in law firms. A Big Question survey in November 2006 found 23% were against firms having a CSR policy, this figure has dropped to 3% in the latest survey.

Pinsent Masons senior partner Chris Mullen said: “Acting for controversial clients can do damage and could adversely affect the recruitment of young lawyers. Unless it is an extreme situation there will always be different opinions, with some clients against a situation and others not bothered by it. We review situations on a case-by-case basis. There are some infrastructure projects which require deploying lawyers to countries with questionable regimes. These situations would go up to our board which would produce a report, not only on the ethical risks, but on issues of health and safety for our staff.”

SJ Berwin managing partner Ralph Cohen (pictured left) said that firms should not feel obligated to give advice. He said: “While some might argue that everyone is entitled to representation, in reality law firms are partnerships and not public bodies, and can therefore choose who to represent, especially if there are reputational concerns.”

The survey drew responses from 197 leading lawyers. One respondent said: “Everyone is entitled to proper legal advice, whether they like that advice or not. There is a fine line to be drawn between advising and adopting your client’s position, which is unacceptable.”

Although 75% of lawyers believe CSR programmes are positive for firms, more than half of respondents believe firms struggle to live up to their stated policies. Forty-nine percent said firms comply with their own CSR policies ‘to a limited extent’, while another 8% labelled such policies as a ‘marketing ploy’.

Addleshaw Goddard litigation partner Monica Burch (pictured right) said: “Most firms try hard with their CSR programmes and it is easy for people to be cynical about these issues. But it would be nice to think some lawyers did get into this profession for idealistic reasons.”

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