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Comment: Why law firm ‘values’ ring hollow (a call for honesty)

Attending a conference recently for general counsel was a reminder that for all the chasm that remains between clients and law firms, they have both imbibed many of the same corporate fashions. A few years back it was all adding value and performance, now it is ‘values’, ‘authenticity’ and other forms of Diet Coke morality.

Talk to law firms, as with plcs, and without irony, you will hear much about ‘tone from the top’, ‘walking the talk’ and interchangeably using ‘piece’ when you mean ‘issue’. Which would all be fine if there was any indication this was leading to a more ethical or caring profession. It would also help if such talk resonated remotely beyond the upper echelons of the corporate and professional services worlds, and did not provoke huge cynicism in staff and clients.

Yet while the once proudly ruthless City profession has become adept at hand-wringing initiatives on worthy causes, evidence on the ground shows little sign of progress. Female retention is still dire at many firms, racial and social diversity worse, and the profession’s brushes so far with the #MeToo campaign indicate much room for improvement in stamping out abusive behaviour.

Law firms frequently tout admirable qualities that do not exist, despite barely-concealed eye-rolling from clients and their own lawyers.

In one area where it can be argued that law firms genuinely lag behind corporates is in HR and people issues. Given the partnership structure, why would any HR professional of any ability choose to work in the legal industry? While the profession has a solid record in some areas compared to other sectors – an in-built respect for rules and fair play goes a long way – the profession has always been prone to a moral relativism and framing acceptable behaviour by minimal legal compliance, generally a pretty low ethical bar. Such can be seen in law firms publishing slick diversity reports while refusing to disclose gender-relevant pay figures for their partnerships because they are not required to. Inspirational.

But business life and expectations of behaviour change, along with the times and the greater chances of being tapped on the shoulder by a regulator or your corporate sins going viral. The profession may start to fall behind in attracting the best workers when more young talent want more than the bare minimum of statutory standards.

But this is not an appeal to be more moral – it is a call for honesty. Institutions do not get into trouble for having ugly or ruthless ethics. The problem is self deceit of their nature. King & Wood Mallesons did not implode in London because its corporate culture was ‘wrong’ but because it tried to conduct itself as if it was something not in its nature. And law firms frequently tout admirable qualities that do not exist, despite barely-concealed eye-rolling from clients and their own lawyers.

Ultimately, if you are convinced that your firm is one of genuinely high values, the best advice is to proceed with a light touch and do not on any account bleat on about your ‘values’. Ethics in a business context is like professional sales – closers do not need to talk about what they will do; they just do it and move on. And the message gets around. Value that.