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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

The customer always comes second

WHEN I SAT DOWN to writethis column, I consideredsimply leaving it blank.This is not because I can’tthink of anything to say – although someof you might dispute that – rather, theidea was prompted by a story I heard onthe news a few weeks ago. It concerned acomposer, Mike Batt, who included in hismost recent album a track consistingsolely of 60 seconds of silence. In amoment of creative genius, Mr Battdecided to entitle this track One Minute’sSilence.Sadly for Mr Batt, he had inadvertently(or perhaps advertently) written a tunethat sounded uncannily like a sample ofan earlier composition by the late avantgardecomposer John Cage, which wasentitled 4’33, and which consisted, youmight not be surprised to learn, of aroundfour and a half minutes’ silence.Dutifully, the publishers of Mr Cage’s work have fileda copyright suit against Mr Batt, and their lawyers areno doubt about to launch into a lengthy and lucrativedebate about whether his silence is original silence, oran illegal copy of a previous one.Anyway, for fear of being taken to court by a consortiumof corrective fluid manufacturers, I decided not topursue the idea of a blank editorial page, but instead todraw attention to the silliness of what might have happenedif I had done so. You may remember that I wroteonly recently on the activities of some members of theworld’s legal profession, but such is my fascination withthe depths to which some professionals will go to earna living that I feel it’s worth touching on once again.Some of my favourite silly lawsuits include: the US college student who fell out of his dormitorywindow while mooning at passers-by, and sued theuniversity for ‘not warning him of the dangers ofliving on the fourth floor’; the death row murderer who lodged a claim againstan author who wrote a book about him, saying thatthe book would make it hard for him to find a job; the prison inmate who accidentally shot andwounded himself, and sued prison chiefs for allowinghim to smuggle the gun into his cell, claimingsecurity checks should have prevented him fromdoing so.Call me a cynic, but I doubt that the lawyers representingthese plaintiffs ever thought that they werefurthering a just cause. More likely is that they simplymade their services available to a willing fee-payer.This is in most jobs a reasonable thing to do, but when should professionalism come into the equation?The consequences of these cases (wasting of courttime and public money) are fairly trivial when comparedagainst other recent examples of clients’ interestsbeing put before professional ethics – the Enroncase springs to mind.I find it quite scary that the legal and accounting professions,founded on the idea that they can help makethe world a fairer and more fairly represented place,can be misrepresented so damagingly by some of theirmembers.Is the actuarial profession immune from such unprofessionalbehaviour? Do we have a screeningprocess that excludes people with a greater propensityfor bringing the profession into disrepute? Is our twodayprofessionalism course enough to instil in newactuaries a superior ability to deal with conflicts ofinterest? Is our code of conduct worded more effectively?Or are actuarial faux pas simply more likely togo unnoticed by the press?Whatever the answers to these questions, we cannotcall ourselves actuaries (or lawyers or accountants ordoctors…) unless professionalism comes before theinterests of our customers.