Legal Business Blogs

Comment: NRF’s Martyr – ‘Society craves balance but the profession drives our people in a different direction’

Our profession is facing a growing tension between the drive for profit – the resurgent guiding principle of the 2000s – and the increasing demand for more social responsibility among businesses. Post-recession, we can add increased competition, the scrutiny of the business press and a growing focus on efficiency into the mix, all of which amounts to a potential recipe for trouble.

Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the familiar notion of equating success with profit, there is a risk that it can become all-consuming, resulting in selfish behaviour, disregard for others, treating people as costs, short-term thinking and an unattractive reputation for sweating the assets.

We live in a market-driven economy, lightly tempered by regulation to mitigate against the worst excesses. But a free market does not provide balance. Indeed the very essence of a market is that it always moves to a point of excess and has to be adjusted, whether by regulatory intervention or social or economic pressure. This is nothing new.

Here is the dilemma: in prioritising profitability, we place increasing demands on our lawyers and business services teams to seek more efficient working methods. We ask them to focus on productivity while promoting efficiency, discipline and intolerance of mediocrity – all of this in a society that is increasingly vocal about the absence of social responsibility in business. In such an environment, one could forgive people for having a fairly cynical view of life with their employer.

Our workforce model is changing. Lawyers are viewing their careers in a different way to past generations, placing less of an emphasis on long-term commitment to a single organisation. There is more contracting for time at the heart of employment, which may well reinforce the view that lawyers and business services teams are cost centres to be engaged as appropriate. None of this is good for the business. A successful business needs to look beyond the bottom line and consider how it can embed socially inclusive values within its culture.

We can’t turn back time. What we can do is look to our current situation and address that crucial need for balance. Society craves balance, yet we drive our people in a direction that is fundamentally detrimental to business and paints our industry in an unattractive light. Law firm leaders have a responsibility to set the tone across the profession and to help younger lawyers understand the benefit gained from a broader work-life perspective.

We should be encouraging all our people to join in activities that benefit others and in doing so reinforce a sense of community in an environment where it is under threat, and respond to the demand for social responsibility. A healthy business looks after its profit, but also does everything it can to enable its people to lead more balanced lives.

The impetus for striking this balance should not be driven by pro bono and volunteering league tables, but by the real benefit to be gained from wider social and cultural engagement. In order for it to stick it has to be implemented from the top down, meaning it is up to senior management to set the standard of engagement across the industry. That engagement isn’t simply a case of putting money behind charitable initiatives. There is arguably no clearer way of demonstrating our commitment than by offering up our profession’s most precious commodity – our time.

Direct action from law firm leaders and other senior figures not only illustrates to the wider community that socially responsible activities are a key concern for our profession, but also serves to encourage others to get involved. By providing this steer, law firm leaders can help our profession move closer to achieving that necessary balance. Speaking from personal experience, it also happens to be fun, which is no bad thing.

Peter Martyr is global chief executive of Norton Rose Fulbright.