Law firm

Running a Law Firm in Polarized Times

It’s a tough time to run a law firm. Along with recessionary concerns, business leaders in our increasingly polarized society must consider whether to take a stand on controversial issues or avoid divisiveness.

Firms should carefully consider how to respond to future laws or court rulings that may generate a myriad of reactions from clients, partners, employees, and recruits.

When Texas lawmakers threatened Sidley Austin with offering abortion-related travel benefits, big business generally responded by backing Sidley and a company’s independence to make decisions.

It was a clear position, not on the controversial issue of abortion, but on corporate autonomy and the rights to travel, to contract, to set terms and conditions of employment, to engage in interstate commerce. , etc.

The Dobbs decision is just the beginning: Florida has already banned employers, including law firms, from requiring fundamentals of diversity training and is now tackling environmental, social and governance (ESG), a profitable and growing area of ​​practice for many large companies.

While Florida’s current focus excludes ESG considerations, it’s conceivable that Florida policymakers could force law firms to choose between representing their clients on ESG or placating the state that controls capacity. lawyers to practice.

With this in mind, it is important to plan how your business will react when forced to make choices that may alienate some stakeholders.

All leadership issues boil down to values. These can be particularly burdensome for law firms.

  • With lawyers’ rules of professional ethics, i.e. no non-competition, rainmakers can easily walk away, threatening to collapse if enough associates decide their values ​​conflict with those of the firm.
  • Partners can be vicariously liable and jointly/severally liable, such as when Texas lawmakers threatened Sidley’s partners with felony charges and fines, as well as disbarment.
  • Lawyer training and the privileges of the bar allow us to fight for justice, but each lawyer places a different weight on this privilege/obligation.

Here’s what law firm executives can do.

Explain the values ​​of the company, how they have shaped the position of your company

If your company has positioned itself on an issue, such as Dobbs, you’ve probably done this. If your goal, however, is to avoid a hot topic, how you do that matters.

Taking a stand on core values ​​and how we apply them is different from taking a stand on an issue like guns, voting rights, gay marriage, prayer circles.

It is a mistake for leaders to tolerate or propagate what I call “the blurring of values”. Not being clear about your organization’s core values ​​- in words and actions – confuses and demoralizes people.

Here is an example of a statement that aims for neutrality while articulating organizational values:

As an organization, we refuse to take a position regarding ______ [issue]. While we know some people may disagree, we make this decision because after much discussion, we know that our partners (owners) have a multitude of viewpoints.

We support people’s right to express their opinions if (a) they are clearly marked as personal, and (b) respectful and in a professional tone.

As a firm that includes members of the bar who are called upon to use our specialized training and privileges to better our world (however we define that), we offer a billable credit of __ hours/year of professional work bono on any 501(c) approved(3) topic that is important to that person.

We realize that this compromise may not work for everyone. While we hope that doesn’t happen, we recognize and accept the risk that some people want an organization with a more monolithic approach.

Gather all opinions before articulating company values

You have probably had ears from your partners, but the assertion of some is different from the frank contribution of all. Aim for the latter.

If you have politically underrepresented people in your company, use your position to repeatedly create spaces of psychological safety. Depending on the size and demographics of your business, this can be done through one-on-one conversations or an affinity group meeting where underrepresented people make up the overwhelming majority. Then welcome their feedback as a gift of honest data. Receiving it graciously is a best practice in leadership.

Business leaders often ask me, “Isn’t it worse to ask for opinions and ignore them, than to say nothing?” Yes, if you act like you’ve never heard them. No, if you listen carefully and consider them, then respectfully explain how you came to the conclusion you did.

People want to feel heard even if they disagree. They want authenticity and transparency from their leaders.

Explain company values ​​in practice

Provide individuals with productive pathways forward. For example, you can encourage and/or allocate company resources pro bono, with a carefully crafted policy that prevents conflict.

Provide clear guidance on external communications. If your company is tempted to ban public comments, consider the costs, not just the benefits. A potential cost is being labeled as the company that muzzles individuals.

Some leaders may balk at this advice, especially those who are used to checking personal issues at the door.

But extensive research and my experience both suggest that when individuals perceive themselves as having to give up too much of their “real” selves at work, the result is often burnout, disengagement, or resignation.

No matter how you define your company’s values, you still risk losing stakeholders. These are division times. But clarifying your company values ​​now will make it easier to navigate the next political earthquake.

While your organization may not be everything for everyone, it can be the bold venture that offers individuals a clear path forward.

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Lauren Krasnow is a leadership coach for senior leaders and rainmakers. She practiced law in Chambers-graded groups for many years. She sits on the board of her chapter of the International Coaching Foundation.