What if law firms wanted to change the world?
In those unprecedented times, it is, more than ever, time to have great conversations.
In a mini-series of articles, I would like to share some « What-if? » thoughts with you. Some of them may seem controversial or blunt, they are in any case intended to be (thought-) provocative and to gently challenge the status quo.
Please share you own thoughts and let’s debate!
1. They are lawyers. Smart, ambitious, accomplished. They are recognized for their expertise, for their excellence. They work hard and they make a great deal of money.
But they enter my office frustrated, exhausted, even cynical, because they feel like something is « missing ».
For some of them, the missing piece is a « sense of meaning ». In fact, they want to help, to make a difference, to have an impact and they feel like they don’t.
Do those lawyers necessarily need to go and work for an NGO? I don’t think so. In my opinion, those lawyers deserve to serve as lawyers, in law firms.
2. Over the last decennia, law has become an industry, a business (almost) like others. It doesn’t mean that law firms have no ethics, firstly because of the strict deontological rules lawyers have to comply with.
Secondly, a lot of law firms are committed to raise their Corporate Social Responsibility (namely through an ISO certification, for instance).
A third factor, which is quite recent and disruptive, comes from the (corporate) clients who pressure law firms to meet their own ethical standards.
In that sense, the first main concern that is shaking up law firms is Diversity. In order to be part of their client’s legal panels, law firms have to demonstrate that they are diverse enough, or at least that they are striving enough for it.
Clients are « pushing » their own moral standards and ethical priorities, their own values into law firms and these try to adapt to the rapidly changing – and honorable – requirements of their clients.
3. But what if the equation was reversed and that law firms defined their own purpose, and the ethical standards that go with it?
What if law firms decided what they want to have a specific impact on society, and they would fight for it?
Would there, for example, be an equivalent of « Triodos bank » in law firms?
What if « making money » was (only) a positive outcome of the impact that the firm would have and the difference they would make?
For instance, could a law firm specialize in environmental causes with the clear intention to be: « on the right side of history »?
Of course, law firms with an outspoken purpose already exist. More often, they specialize in social causes, like migration law.
But I also found an illustration in a well-known boutique tax law firm in Brussels, whose purpose is clearly to eradicate tax. Tax is « evil », as the license plate of the famous firm founder’s Hummer noticeably states it : »NO TAX ».
Another one is a niche boutique law firm that helps wealthy families to preserve their asset from generation to generation.
Those are all strong and clear purposes.
4. Obviously, the idea is seducing but also quite tricky to implement.
On the one hand, fossil fuel companies (to name but them) are also the ones who are massively investing in « green » and renewable energy.
On the other hand, NGOs can sometimes use their funding very inefficiently, amongst others in colossal operating costs and indecent executive salaries.
Moreover, everyone in a democracy has the right to a fair trial, and it is the specific mission of lawyers to protect this right.
However, this doesn’t prevent a law firm to adopt a number of ethical guidelines of its own, based on the core values of the firm and its members.
For instance, a law firm could refuse to defend a socially prejudicial position of a Big pharma company, because of its own ethical standards.
Lately, a platform of American law students (the American platform Law Students for Climate Accountability) started to assess law firms based on their work ethics, calling to the boycott of the worst elements. The Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard, aims to « Uncover the role of top law firms in the climate crisis », whether it is by playing an integral role in the transactions that finance fossil fuel development, the litigation that prevents climate accountability, or lobbying for the fossil fuel industry.
5. Of course, not every business needs a purpose, a reason of being, a « Why ».
If you have an interior design business and you are passionate about design, the purpose lies in it: you want to share your passion and make your clients’ life – and the world? – better, by bringing beauty and harmony to it.
One can think that the same may apply for a bakery or a bookshop.
And if you are a doctor, your job, and your purpose, is typically « to save lives ».
Originally, being a lawyer must have been like that too and it is still the case, for many of them. But in many law firms, the connection with that type of natural purpose seem to be lost for some reason.
And maybe it is even more important for law firms than for other businesses to get that purpose back.
Why? I can think of several reasons for that:
– When your clients are business or institutions, you often don’t have a direct contact or connection with them. And, as a business lawyer, it can happen that you do not see anybody at all, for several days. So, in the end, it is not so noticeable whether you have made a difference in someone’s life or not.
– The compensation and reward system, based on the billable hours, imposes you to make a lot of sacrifices in your private life, typically to « give everything » to the firm. Apart from the tax you pay to the State, you do not have much opportunity to give back to the community.
– What is the point of doing some pro bono work if you feel like your paid job is not contributing to the society or even detrimental to it?
– The essence of a lawyer’s job is to « fight » and that it can be exhausting if you don’t know so well what you are fighting for.
– Whereas in some jobs, the « team spirit » can compensate a missing or unclear purpose, the concept of being a team is much less present than in law firms
– Finally, one additional reason perhaps lies in the fact that in every lawyer hides an idealist who somehow wants to change the world?
6. Why this sense of meaning/purpose could make the difference?
It goes without saying that having a « purpose » can only make a difference if it reflects a shared cause the partners believe in. Far beyond a « strategy », it is something in which the members of the firm deeply want to engage.
– Then, working for a purpose will be less likely to drain your energy, because you will know what you are fighting for and why.
– Secondly, having a shared purpose will be a strong source of affectio societatis between the partners, making this venture unique and preventing partners to leave the firm as soon as they have a better opportunity in another competing firm.
– Third: profit will naturally derive from the positive impact of the firm and will be less central.
– Fourth: such a law firm could manage to attract and, most of all, retain clients who would be loyal to the same « cause » and sharing the same values.
– Finally, being an « ethical law firm » or « law firm with a cause » would be very attractive and motivating for associates, especially for the last generations (W, Z and Millennials) who are more and more prioritizing meaning and impact in their job.
7. And what about me and my clients?
Again, without suggesting that every law firm should have specific ethical standards/engagements or a « clear purpose », I am reflecting on the opportunity of having some.
And this naturally leads me to the next question: What about me? As a coach, should I choose my clients – law firms – by screening their ethical standards and only work with the ones whose work purpose and ethics are aligned with mine?
To be continued…
 On April, 7th, 2021, the platform launched a hard campaign (#DoneWithDunn) against global law firm Gibson Dunn. In an open letter to the firm, the students denounce its representation of clients in the fossil fuel industry and demand that it adopt standards governing what cases and clients it will forgo.
“We call on Gibson Dunn to commit to a publicly available ethical standard that articulates its protocol for representation of the fossil fuel industry,” the letter reads. “Gibson Dunn’s pattern of representation suggests that there is no ethical standard guiding its work, with profit consistently overriding pressing issues of justice.”
“Diversity programs, pro bono, and in-office sustainability are all welcome but are insufficient as long as Gibson Dunn continues to perpetrate immense harm through its work for paying clients. There must be a line that Gibson Dunn will not cross.”
 Even though Simon Sinek brightly defends the contrary in its “Start with why” speech and books.