How is an in-house lawyer like a sheep with a bell around its neck? (No, this isn’t another bad lawyer joke.)

Answer: The in-house lawyer is the bellwether of office morality–if we choose to be. (If you’re confused, here’s the dictionary definition of bellwether: a sheep that leads the flock, usually wearing a bell; or, one who assumes a leadership or forefront position, particularly within a profession.)

But what’s morality? Some would argue that morals are nothing more than a mutable reflection of local customs and habits. As Samuel Butler stated, “Cannibalism is moral in a

cannibal country.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the belief that morals equate to what’s virtuous, ethical and honorable in a universal, divine sense. As Thomas Jefferson declared, “The moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing or hearing.”

I agree with Jefferson. I believe everyone has a conscience that serves as his or her own moral “bell.” Whether people want to listen to their God-given sense of morality is quite another thing. People will always seek excuses for their wicked behavior if such behavior is “morally” acceptable within their group or culture. But just because people call something moral doesn’t mean it is.

Gang members have bloody beatings as their initiation. In certain cultures, men execute their wives for flirting with other men. Is it moral just because such conduct is acceptable within those circles? The same questions can be asked of certain types of conduct within the law and corporate America.

It’s easy for lawyers to lose sight of morality because we are so often pressured to focus on whether something is legal. Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it moral. In-house lawyers constantly face the clash between business goals and morality.

As lawyers, we have a duty to step back and consider the moral implications of actions that might otherwise be “legal.” What if your CEO wants to terminate an “at will” executive (perfectly legal), but wants to do so simply because he resents the guy’s popularity? What if settling wrongful death suits is cheaper than fixing a deadly product? Just knowing you can pound an adversary into the ground and bankrupt them doesn’t necessarily mean you should. These moral challenges can go far beyond our learned notions of “legal ethics” and codes of conduct.

Being a meaningful “bellwether” means sounding off, fighting for what’s right and taking proactive steps to lead the flock to the moral high ground. We can give presentations to executives on professionalism and ethics and coach individuals on inappropriate behavior. Above all, we must lead by example and maintain the utmost in moral conduct and professionalism. Our actions set the tone for the workplace.

As in-house attorneys in small departments, we are perfectly positioned to be the unwavering moral compass for our clients. We have the logistical reach and professional cache to exert a moral influence. Compared to large legal departments, we have greater visibility across the corporate spectrum and closer personal interaction with a larger percentage of employees.

It’s simply far more difficult for a large group of lawyers in a big company to move with one moral voice, or to have the same level of personal influence. It’s also harder for any one such lawyer to lead the flock. Imagine multiple, bell-adorned sheep in a sea of sheep, and the chaos that would ensue. Not a pretty sight.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Morality is the herd instinct in people.” Now, while I would certainly disagree that true morality equates to the whim of a herd, it is human nature to follow the herd when it comes to defining what is “moral.”

Knowing this, it is our sacred duty as in-house lawyers to be the steadfast moral compass. We need to lead the herd in the right direction–not hide within the pack, bouncing aimlessly among the other sheep. Be the bellwether!