What does it mean to be a professional?

by .

Recent examples of wrongdoing by investment bankers, accountants, lawyers, and consultants are at odds with our understanding of what it means to be a professional. We are not surprised when a business or a businessman turns out to be “dodgy”, but we expect much more from our professionals. Many of the people reading this article will be proud to think of themselves as professionals, and believe themselves to be imbued with professional ideals. However, you may not be able to relate to the ‘purpose’ statements springing up on the websites of many professional service firms, promising to do everything from ‘building trust in society’ to ‘building a better working world.’ As cases of professional misconduct and grandiose purpose statements proliferate, what exactly does it mean today to be a ‘professional’?

The concept has a long history, and has been the subject of academic debate for more than a century. Over time its meaning has evolved, and some fundamental aspects of professionalism are now coming under threat.

Historically there were three recognised professions: divinity, law, and medicine, known as the ‘learned professions’ because they were associated with advanced academic study. Individual professionals needed to acquire esoteric knowledge in order to practice their profession, and this acted as a barrier to entry. This emphasis on an exclusive body of knowledge is foundational to more modern professions, such as architecture and engineering, though not aspirant professions such as consulting. However, it is under threat. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are now capable of automating many tasks and processes that were once the core activity of junior professionals. Now robots are performing intricate surgery and computers are capable of making better decisions than the professionals they have replaced, what does it mean to be a professional?

Linked with esoteric knowledge is the idea of vocation. This concept is mostly used today in the context of low-remuneration/low status “caring” professions, such as teaching or social work, where women predominate. But what about professional vocation more generally? It may have become a meaningless concept for many professionals, but it need not be. This was brought home to me very forcefully during the recent national strike of university staff. Academics cancelled lectures and went without pay for 3 weeks to protest at changes being made to their employment conditions. However, every academic I know continued to work hard on their research, whilst receiving no pay. Why did we do this? Because our research is precious to us, an integral part of our identity, and something we believe is worth doing to the best of our ability, whatever the circumstances. I wonder how many accountants, lawyers, consultants and bankers would feel impelled to work long hours if their organisations stopped paying them? The commercialisation of most professions means that, in too many professional service firms, professional work has become about the money earned, rather than a worthwhile endeavour in its own right. We should not be surprised, therefore, when professionals transgress their professional ideals in the pursuit of higher returns.

Which brings us to the another defining characteristic of professionals, autonomy. The professions have traditionally defended themselves from state regulation, arguing that professional standards are best enforced by the people who understand them best. At the same time professionals have enjoyed a degree of autonomy from their employers in order to develop a customised service for their clients, and autonomy from their clients in order to ensure that their advice is “correct”. Individual professionals, traditionally at least, were expected to say ‘no’ to a client and indeed to their organizations when asked to do something that transgressed their ethical code. This was one reason why we used to trust professionals. But once the disciplining effect of a professional conscience is subcontracted to the regulators, as it has been in recent decades, we risk undermining one of the defining characteristics of professionals.

Ever since Hippocrates first formulated his oath for doctors, high ethical standards have been at the heart of what it means to be a professional. But corporate scandals – and the role that accountants, consultants, lawyers, and bankers have played in these scandals – have cast doubt on how robust these ethics remain in many professional service firms. The increasingly extreme commercial pressures with which professional organisations must contend mean it is too easy to marginalise professional ethics, and only realise this has happened when it is too late. Individual professionals’ ethics (their gut feeling about what is right) are getting lost in the mix of their firm’s business imperative and their clients’ expectations. Professionals compete to outdo each other in providing a level of client service which goes “above and beyond..”, but above and beyond what exactly? In their quest to “superplease” their clients, professionals risk losing their professional soul.

The increasing incursion of regulators onto professional autonomy may be one reason why many professional service firms have dedicated time and attention in recent years to articulating their sense of ‘purpose’, developing inspiring phrases to explain how they contribute to society and make the world a better place. But how meaningful are these purpose statements in relation to the day-to-day professional work? And how necessary are they, given that the ideas encapsulated within them are supposedly at the core of what it means to be a professional? Is it time for professional service firms to ditch the pretentious purpose statements and reconnect with a more profound and primal commitment to what it really means to be a professional?


Laura Empson is Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, London, and a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School. Her most recent book, published by Oxford University Press, is Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas. Go to www.lauraempson.com for further information.


A note on context: 

‘Professional service firms and purpose’ was the subject of a recent discussion held at the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School. Professor Laura Empson and Jericho Chambers’ Robert Phillips provided the provocation.

It was argued that the current trend for defining ‘purpose’ seemed to be a mash-up of two older management trends: the focus on ‘vision’ and ‘values’. The rhetoric around purpose suggests that professional service firms are no longer focused on making money but on some higher calling. But how does this sit with the fact that some professional firms are also selling their change management services to clients by emphasising the business case for “purpose-led” change?

Are these purpose projects an attempt by professional service firms to keep regulators at bay by displaying their ethical credentials; just another management fad that consultants have developed to sell to gullible clients; a cynical attempt to attract idealistic millennials; or an attempt by exhausted and disillusioned professionals to give meaning to their lives? ‘Or,’ to be more positive, just maybe something significant shifting, and we are on the cusp of a reinvention of what it means to be a professional. There are, after all, some isolated examples of professional service firms – or activist pockets within them – genuinely leading with “purpose”. These are now in danger of being overwhelmed by the intensifiying populist clamour from media and policy-makers against professionals and their firms.






Sign up to be kept up to date