Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Ethics Man

The lawyer’s brief on ethics

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 27 April 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1815
  1. Daniel K Sokol, honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}

The parallels between legal and medical ethics are clear

In August 2009 I resigned from my position as an academic medical ethicist to train as a barrister. Upon hearing of my change a friend quipped, “Ah, you’ve given up ethics to be a lawyer.” To many people “ethics” and “lawyers” are like oil and water. In the popular perception, lawyers have no scruples and earn vast sums of money, even defending murderers, rapists, and paedophiles. In the context of medicine they sue well meaning clinicians and attempt deviously to undermine the authority of esteemed consultants in cross examination. Eager was I, then, to find out whether ethics had a place in a lawyer’s training.

There was not a drop of teaching of ethics in my first year of law, the so called “conversion” year. We were taught to change our way of thinking from that of layperson (“That’s jolly unfair!”) to that of a lawyer (“Is there a wrongful act in law?”). We were taught the law from an academic perspective: imagine a surgeon who leaves a swab in a patient’s abdomen, or a general practitioner who fails to diagnose a malignant melanoma, what must …

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