Law is law. Right? Or perhaps not.
In the good old days, when time wasn’t (always) money (back then, the weight of the file really did impact the fees) lawyers exhibited a passion for the craft that ascended Profit per Equity Partner (PEP). And this is not just me getting all glassy-eyed, it is the truth. Many of the partners I first started working with decried the notion of chargeable hours, interim billing and client profitability analysis. It appeared that they did what they did for two principal reasons: (a) they liked the client; and (b) they wanted to make a difference. Were they any happier in what they did? It’s difficult for me to say, however the language used within the firm was different, which made me feel at least that the firm was client-centric and not focused exclusively on making a profit.
One may say, particularly in this day and age, that to revert to a bygone era is unwise however, from my vantage point, as someone who’s worked as a solicitor, coached lawyers and run a law firm, I feel there is a substantial amount to be gained from starting a conversation about law firm purpose where money and profit are not the primary focus.
Those running law firms ought to be asking more fundamental questions than “How can we make more profit for a few?” These, for example, could be a few of the deeper questions they might ask:
- What is enough? (see the book “Enough” by John C. Bogle)
- Why not articulate a Why? (see the book “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek)
- Why are so few law firms interested in B-Corp status? (Bates Wells Braithwaite can see the advantage, so why not others?)
- Why are so few law firms interested in pursuing a self-organising model where wholeness is a driving force behind client service?
- And, should there be a limit of say fifteen times the lowest to the highest paid?
Private Law Practice is a private business however that does not mean its leaders should close their eyes to a new way of seeing the legal world, particularly, or more especially, in light of the increased pressure from clients, Artifical Intelligence (AI) and employee retention.
In short, it makes good business sense to start from a different place than PEP. The law is a human business and although the idea of considering a different business paradigm may feel out of kilter with where many (particularly older) lawyers find themselves, new generations of lawyers coming through do not consider that money is the only thing on the agenda. In a 2013 Forbes article, John Zogby, author of First Globals Understanding, Managing, & Unleashing the Potential of Our Millennial Generation said of millennials that “85% want work that makes a difference and is enriching to themselves but also enriching to the world. And 71% want to work for a company or entity that encourages some form of global or community social responsibility. Each of those numbers is dramatically higher than the other age cohorts.” It’s about time that more law firms started taking these issues seriously.
In a sense, the question of law firm purpose is secondary right now to the huge strain on the lawyer cohort brought about by the competitive culture of chargeable hours and billing targets not to mention the metronomic way lawyers are expected to fulfil these targets month after month often without thanks. As someone who has come full circle from practising law in a way that nearly drove me to an early grave, I feel that I am in as good a place as anyone to say that unless law firms do more than pay lip service to “rejoining soul and role” (Refer work of the Center for Courage and Renewal, Parker J. Palmer) they are accumulating trouble in the form of employee depression and resentment towards the firm, colleagues and clients.
Healing the situation
Those in charge need to look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves what sort of environment they’ve created (or inherited) and whether it’s ever likely to bring out the best – the very best – in people. I appreciate how difficult it is to change ingrained and corrosive behaviours however a cultural revolution is just that. It is not meant to be easy. (I can think of at least one situation where, by changing the managing partner, the firm transformed its ethos not quite overnight but certainly more rapidly than lots of listening exercises would have delivered.)
In the end, all of this is a choice. And not one that any group of people would take lightly; however if innovation, client service and a sense of wholeness mean anything, and not simply as a way to make even more profit, then there is no time like the present to start a conversation about what sort of law firm you are, what sort of law firm you’d like to be and what sort of measures you need to adopt to move from point A to point…’a lot better than where you are now’. Then those lawyers who show up to work day after day may do so, not out of a resigned sense of acceptance, but out of a love and sense of purpose for what they do and what the law firm does.
Embracing a holistic future
Nevertheless, despite these concerns and challenges, there are genuine possibilities for substantial and enduring change within the UK legal profession. There is an increasing interest and openness in new concepts and initiatives around wellbeing and emotional health amongst key stakeholders which creates real and exciting opportunities.
One way to arguably seize such opportunities is to focus on developing a stronger evidence base in relation to the needs, perceptions and understanding of the UK legal profession. There is some excellent work on emotional labour within parts of the legal profession done by academics such as Chalen Westaby. There is also work by academics such as Richard Collier specifically on wellbeing. However, there is still much that remains to be explored. For example, the work on emotion in the legal profession tends to have focused on certain areas which arguably have the most clear emotive component (such as family and immigration law). Less investigation has taken place into seemingly less emotive topics (such as corporate and commercial work) to see if, how and why they differ. In tandem with this, the wider research that is available internationally needs to be highlighted and promoted within the UK. Insights from psychology, neuro-science and other disciplines need to be drawn on to inform notions of wellbeing and emotional health to make them as meaningful and rich as possible. A greater awareness is needed of the integrative law movement and the diverse and exciting vectors which it encompasses.
Finally, this research must by synthesised and developed into positive, forward-looking strategies which take a more holistic view of wellbeing and emotional health. One that encompasses both the broader structural changes that are required to the legal profession and culture, as well as nurturing individual members of the legal profession. None of this will be an easy, or linear, process. However, the rewards will be well worth the journey.
Julian Summerhayes is a solicitor in private practice based in Devon. His legal journey has also included running a law firm, consulting to magic circle and mid-tier firms and speaking to lawyers on a range of heart-centred issues. His mission is to enable lawyers to connect soul with role. Married with three children — which keep him busy — outside of work, his passion is cycling and exploring everything that his beloved Devon has to offer. Julian Summerhayes