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Ethics must be understood in context

There is no right answer, but there are right values, writes Tim Wilbur

Cheryl Foy and Ken Fredeen have been writing an ethics column for this magazine for a full year now. They pitched me this column in 2019, telling me that in-house lawyers needed an anonymous way to share ideas with their colleagues on how to navigate thorny ethical situations.

I was excited about the potential of the column because of the topic as well as the reputation of Foy and Fredeen among their peers. Foy and Fredeen both have broad experience on which to draw but from very different perspectives.

Foy is currently the general counsel at Ontario Tech University and has more than a decade of experience as the GC of small technology companies as well. Fredeen, on the other hand, has spent his career in the legal department at the very large companies Deloitte and Canadian Airlines. 

This issue’s ethics column demonstrates very well how ethical questions can generate different answers depending on one’s background.

An in-house lawyer who does not have any responsibility for equity, diversity or inclusion wrote to Foy and Fredeen worried that their organization was ignoring the issue. While Fredeen and Foy both rightly point out that this is a problem, their perspectives resulted in different answers.

Fredeen suggests that if there are no allies at the senior levels, the in-house lawyer should evaluate whether this is an organization to which they want to hitch their brand. Foy, on the other hand, suggests the lawyer be determined and focused and view time as an ally to bring about change.

The reality, to which the two different answers allude, is that the size of an organization can affect one’s course of action. Large organizations are difficult to change, but if their values match yours, you can make a difference. Small organizations, on the other hand, can be difficult to pin down but easier to change.

Ethics, in other words, must be understood in context. There is no right answer, but there are right values. Promoting equity, diversity or inclusion should be on every in-house counsel’s radar, as should the other values Fredeen and Foy have written about throughout the year. How you do that, however, can and should be very different. 

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