2002 - Professional standards
Some weeks ago I was standing
on a balcony in central London overlooking the
Thames, drink in one hand, canape in the other,
admiring the view and doing my best to avoid any
discussion about the economy.
The last part was difficult because
the reception had strong City connections and
most of the people worked for investment banks
and accountancy firms. It was no surprise, then,
that small talk with a partner of one of the big
accountancy firms turned quickly from the weather
to the reputation of auditors in the wake of the
Enron scandal. Professional standards were falling,
he said. Something should be done about it.
He had some sympathy for Andersen,
Enron's auditors, in the "there but for the
grace of God" mould but he was critical of
the way that the search for broader consulting
opportunities among accounting firms had compromised
the independence and professional detachment of
individuals. Why enter a profession at all, he
asked, if you are not going to exercise professional
The question could have been
made for an investigation of professional values
launched in the UK last week by the Royal Society
for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and
An RSA debate, posing the question:
"why do we need the professions ?" was
introduced by Lord Philips of Sudbury, the Liberal
Democrat peer, who is apractising solicitor. He
argued that increasing complexity, specialisation
and long hours were divorcing professional people
from their traditional supporting role in communities.
Some professionals, he suggested,
might no longer possess the "moral toughness"
to resist pressure from corporate clients or less
scrupulous bosses focused on billings targets,
related bonuses and league tables of firms.
One way to reaffirm professional
values in the legal profession , he said, would
be to revive the taking of oaths in the way that
it is practised in some US states. He pointed
out that the word " profession " derives
from the Latin professio, which means "avow
publicly", and argued that oath-taking could
help to reinforce a professional commitment to
uphold the public good, "without which the
practice of law loses its status as a calling
and degenerates into a tool".
Similar principles are underlined
in the American Bar Association's rules of conduct
that remind members to allocate time and resources
to those who cannot afford the cost of legal representation.
Of course this opens the door
for contingency lawyers who compete for civil
actions in which their fee depends on a successful
outcome of a claimant's case. The UK legal profession
continues to view such cut-throat competition
with suspicion but there is greater support for
pro bono work - doing something without being
paid for it - if it is shared equally around legal
Lord Sudbury was right to raise
issues of integrity and probity in professional
undertakings but any debate on the professions
needs to be broadened to look at the way they
promote professional exclusivity. This point was
raised some years ago by Harold Perkin, the social
historian, in his book The Rise of Professional
Society, which charts the development of the professional
ethic in England after 1880.
Prof Perkin pointed to the way
that professions were able to exploit the market
for their services by maintaining an artificial
scarcity in supply. Fee rates, he argued, could
be enhanced "by an amount proportional to
the scarcity or skill". The legalised closed
shops maintained by the professions , once they
have secured control over qualifications, standard-setting
and policing of their discipline, have proved
a successful system for delivering healthy fee
To what extent should the professions
be permitted to pursue restrictive practices?
It seems sensible that the medical profession
should promote the highest standards of competence
- but the same might be argued for train drivers,
architects and road planners, whose mistakes can
and do lead to loss of lives.
Any investigation of the professions
should look at the desirability of segregation
of the work of a solicitor, for example, from
that of a barrister. If you took away the wigs,
would you be able to tell the difference? It might
also question the desirability or otherwise of
broadening the professions in business. How important
for example, is the possession of a royal charter?
The UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development (with the newly chartered Institute
of Management following closely in its wake) appears
to be well on the way towards control of standards
in UK human resources management. But would it
be helpful to business if the possession of CIPD
qualifications were a compulsory requirement for
all human resources roles?
Private enterprise must call
on professional expertise, from lawyers, accountants
and actuaries, for example, but countless self-made
entrepreneurs, often with little formal education,
have proved that success in business can be achieved
without a string of letters after one's name.
Today, however, the entourage of advisers is growing,
often including coaches, mentors, psychologists,
personal trainers, publicists, even stylists.
Should these roles become as steeped in professional
commitments as those in the law and medicine?
It is fitting that the RSA should
be undertaking such a debate, because the society
was founded in the mid 18th century during the
formative years of the professional classes. By
the 19th century divisions in professional class
were becoming apparent.
The Victorian writer T.H.S. Escott
argued that receiving money directly from clients
put doctors and solicitors on a lower plane than
those of barristers and clergy, who faced no requirement
to undertake such "vulgar" commercial
Surely today such distinctions
have become irrelevant. But new distinctions are
emerging, not least in semantics. How, for example,
can we square the professional foul in soccer
with the ethical code of a profession ? Should
we take professional pride in something that is
expertly executed yet morally and ethically wrong?
Susanna Reece, the RSA's project
manager, says she does not want the debate to
become an insular discussion among the professions
"I think it is important
that we look beyond the traditional professions
and I want the professions to understand how they
are perceived by those outside their ranks,"
she says. Whatever the research programme discovers,
the time seems ripe to undertake a critical review
of what it means to be a professional.