Building Credibility in a Skeptical Age

May 21, 2019

We’ve written in this space about how it’s harder than ever to issue a public apology that actually rings true for the public, and how a firm’s tone in communications on diversity speaks volumes on whether it actually sees the value in a more inclusive culture.

Both of these issues are part of a much larger cultural phenomenon that firms must acknowledge: for a number of reasons, people have grown increasingly skeptical of established institutions. Whether that skepticism reflects a clear-eyed assessment of motives or borders on the paranoid doesn’t really matter. Either way, the result is that more people now assume the corporations and organizations they interact with are corrupt and motivated only by self-interest. This makes it hard for a firm of any significant size or history to cast itself as caring about anyone but the very largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals.

So how can a law firm market itself as “different”—and driven by more elevated values—in order to appeal to millennial talent, diverse in-house counsel, or independent business owners?

One important way for a firm to build credibility with these skeptical constituencies is by taking a stand on issues outside the narrow range of matters it handles. Speaking up for what is right and fair when the misuse of power exploits people, rigs the system, and damages natural resources and the future of our society allows your firm to communicate who it is.

Law firms have long been conservative—not necessarily politically, but certainly in temperament—about speaking out on, well, anything outside the sphere of their work. But part of authenticity is bringing your whole self to the work that you do, and that means firms must engage with society and culture as a collection of human beings. As activists say, silence is complicity. You may not agree that this is true, but if your target market sees it that way you could be in trouble.

These days, you might have to be a bit bolder in speaking up or risk getting lumped in with the “swamp.”