Purpose over profit: Profession needs “fundamental” cultural reset

Denis-Smith: Lawyers need to lead the way

The pandemic has not brought about necessary cultural change in the legal profession – beyond allowing some staff to work from home – meaning lawyers and their firms need to fundamentally reset their values, a new report has argued.

Obelisk Support said such a reset would allow the profession to address issues such as inclusion, accessibility, attracting the next generation of lawyers and ensuring the legal profession stood first and foremost for the rule of law and not just profit.

Legal Reset – a follow-up to its 2019 report on reshaping law firm culture –identified four key ‘pillars’ of this cultural revolution: the need to “practise with purpose”; embracing genuine flexible working; moving away from a partnership model fuelled by billable hours; and driving innovation through technology.

It argued that, while on the face of it, large law firms have changed in response to Covid-19, “the reality is that it is skin deep and insufficient given the pressures they are facing from younger lawyers, clients and wider society”.

The profession was “still in the grip of sky-rocketing wages to tackle the talent war” and huge profits per partner, all whilst a mental health crisis was taking hold.

Obelisk identified the shortcomings of the partnership model as a particular problem: “The pyramid structure leads to a culture driven by billable hours and laser focus on inputs rather than outputs.

“The need to maximise partner profits necessitates a short-term attitude that infects every aspect of a firm’s operations, management and values.”

Instead, it said, firms should look to be diverse, inclusive, accountable, responsible and eco-conscious.

“None of these values are contentious on their own, and they should not be hard for law firms to live. They are not unreasonable for clients to demand, and are now thrown into even sharper focus by the onset of war in Ukraine.

“Ultimately, the world is changing and law firms have to recognise the old ways will no longer do. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is going to happen.”

Obelisk CEO Dana Denis-Smith said: “There is an obligation to reset our values as a legal profession. To be intentional about cultural change and ensure we are living up to these values through measurement and reporting that drives action beyond another index or award ceremony.

“Lawyers should not just be content to ‘do the right thing’ but lead the way for other disciplines and sectors to follow and in doing so build a legal profession we are proud to leave as a legacy for the next generation.”

In her introduction to the report, Cherie Blair QC wrote: “For all the progress to date, we remain a long way from the kind of diverse and inclusive profession we all surely want. However, the pressure is building from all sides and cannot be ignored. Presenteeism is a curse and we can practise law differently.

“We cannot ignore how Covid has upped the pace of change. Like many of our clients, we cannot go back to the way we were – as practitioners, parents and individuals, who have a life as well as commitment to our firms, we are saying that this is not how we want to be anymore.”

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