Professions are traditionally seen as being distinct from occupations and granted status and privileges by the State as a result; garnering kudos, economic rewards, and regulatory advantages over ‘mere’ occupations. But for professions to be given these privileges, they must serve a useful purpose for society. A key question is: what is that purpose? One answer is that professions are created to ensure that a particular body of esoteric knowledge is used for the public good, rather than the lawyer’s self-interests, or the interests of government, or for private interests such as powerful clients. This paper explores the extent to which corporate lawyers working in the world’s largest law firms are still professionals or whether, because of their relationships with their clients and other forces and factors, they are now ‘mere’ service providers. Drawing on interviews with 135 corporate finance lawyers from 30 of the top 100 UK law firms, I will suggest that corporate lawyers think infrequently about what it means to be a professional, that they struggle to articulate the ‘public interest’ in what they do, and that they are now beholden (for various reasons) to their clients in ways which are concerning. This work leads me to question whether the status and privileges granted to corporate lawyers should be kept in place.
Dr Steven Vaughan is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Laws, University College London. His work spans lawyers’ ethics and regulation, legal education, environmental law, and corporate finance. A former ESRC Future Research Leader, Steven’s research to date on lawyers has looked at sexuality and the profession, at the ethics and professionalism of corporate finance and in-house lawyers, at the regulation of diversity, at homophily in the Supreme Court, and at how elite law firms ‘do’ CSR. He has written two monographs, two edited collections, and 27 further chapters/journal pieces since 2007, alongside pieces for The Times and The Guardian and speaking at the Hay Festival. Away from UCL, Steven has sat on the Education and the Policy Committees of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the LGBT Lawyers Division of The Law Society, and the Research Strategy Group of the Legal Services Board.