De Novo Exclusive: The Imperative (and Hazards) of Speaking Up on Social Issues

In a cultural moment that shows little tolerance for neutral players beholden only to the interests of their clients, law leaders face uncomfortable conflicts and big decisions about what it means to be a moral actor in 2021. In the past year, and especially in the past few weeks, we’ve seen law firms lining up to speak out alongside corporate clients about issues ranging from the January 6 insurrection to the Georgia bill suppressing voting rights. But are firms prepared to be held to account for these statements?

It’s an old American truism that “doing well” is incompatible with “doing good,” but that belief has been overturned by the movement toward greater corporate social responsibility and the expectation, especially from young consumers, that businesses take a moral stand on the most compelling issues of the day, such as racism and climate change.

As consumer-facing businesses grapple with this new expectation, the law firms that serve them now find themselves being held to account for their own corporate citizenship, with pressure coming from in-house counsel to make values-based decisions, such as buying from diverse suppliers or minimizing your carbon footprint. “Doing the right thing” now has new — and acute — business implications.

But are they really new? To some degree, this is simply an extension of the usual client-focused ethos any effective professional services firm embraces. If Pepsi is your client, you’re not serving Diet Cokes in the conference room. And so, whether you, as a firm leader, happen to believe that diverse teams of lawyers provide better legal work (spoiler alert: research shows they do), if your top clients are asking for diverse teams, your staffing model needs to deliver them.

Likewise, if your firm’s business plan depends on bringing in a sizable class of new associates each year, you will be familiar with the expectations of Generation Z law students that the firms they join must share their values. For instance, law student groups have called for firms to do away with binding arbitration and secret settlement policies that once hid sexual harassment claims from view, or for firms to turn away clients whose business harms the environment.

The end of “non-accountability” may be long overdue. It’s also complicated for firms’ business plans — and their communications strategies. How should law firm leaders decide when to speak out, and how? Check out Deb Pickett’s detailed take on this topic in De Novo.