Susan Smith Blakely

Law Firms Should Follow Corporations In Looking Beyond Self-Interest

Law firm greed.  

I have been writing about the negative impact of greed in the law profession since 2016.  It was then that I first discussed how the greed manifested by large law firms is undercutting the professionalism of the business of law.  Those comments appeared in an article I penned for Corporate Counsel in its September issue that year, and I have discussed the concepts many times since in articles and remarks to legal audiences.

In essence, I argue that it was the greed of Wall Street that brought our economy to its knees in 2008, and it will be the greed of the law profession that will bring the business of law to its knees all too soon if we do not reverse course.  Reversing course will require a renewed dedication to the values of our workforce and the wellness of our law professionals, thoughtful consideration and action on specific issues of telecommuting and work-life balance, examination of the role of billable hours in determining competence and value, and use of our resources and talents to serve communities and society.

Most recently, I discussed these concepts at a law firm partnership retreat within the larger context of a discussion about what millennial lawyers want.  By building on the reality that millennial lawyers will be 75% of legal professionals by 2030 and the research that millennial lawyers desire less greed and more caring, I found my audience to be much more attentive than some audiences of the past.  Law firm managers now recognize that the future of their firms and robust succession plans lie with millennial lawyers and their millennial clients.  Numbers do not lie.

So, I was cautiously encouraged.  And then I was even more encouraged to see a reverse course from the Business Roundtable last week.  As reported in a Wall Street Journal article, leaders of some of America's largest companies are rethinking the notion that corporate decisions should rightfully revolve around the needs and desires of shareholders.  Meaning profit to the exclusion of everything else.  Meaning greed.

So, business leaders extraordinaire, including the likes of Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Jeffrey Bezos of Amazon and scores of their corporate colleagues, have decided that corporate leaders should take into account all stakeholders --- to include employees, customers and society at large --- when making decisions about corporate direction.

The newly-formulated "Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation" begins with this sentence:

Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity.

The new statement goes on to identify multiple obligations to support this goal, in the following order of importance:

  • Delivering value to customers.
  • Investing in employees.
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers.
  • Supporting the communities in which they work.
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders.

Some of these directives are mirror images of the arguments leveled against greed in the legal profession.  This is not surprising because law is a business, and, like other businesses, it must survive in a changing world.  Rules that worked yesterday may not work today.

Hopefully, this new view of corporate responsibility will rub off on law firm leaders who know that the clock is ticking and that the law firm leaders of tomorrow have different values and different world views.  And that those different values and world views need to be taken seriously and respected.

So much at stake.  So many watching.

 Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

 Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want:  A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight, Lawyerist.com, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman, Law.com, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016”for her work on behalf of women in the law. 

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

 

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