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After 21 years of teaching ethical decision-making and the building of ethical corporate cultures to business students, I have just started to teach a law school course on the topic. Having done this once before in 1999, I knew that there would not be a lot of materials available that go beyond the traditional professionalism or ethical codes kinds of stuff, but since ’99, the corporate world has shifted attention from “corporate compliance” to building “organizational cultures” that focus on “ethics and compliance.” That change resulted from post-Enron disenchantment with compliance models and with empirical evidence demonstrating that a compliance-based approach is not particularly effective — the test of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines — in creating compliant organizations. Instead, quite a bit of academic attention has been focused on how to build ethical cultures. Surely, some of this has affected law firms, too. Well, not really. Yes, there has been some attention given to the topic, but in developing the course as well as finding myself making presentations to general counsel organizations interested in the topic, it became clear, quickly, that this is a mysterious topic. That is not itself surprising. “Culture” is a squishy concept. How does one build something like this? How does one evaluate whether one has it? Why do lawyers or corporate executives have to put up with such soft stuff anyway — where are the numbers to back it up? A trustworthy brand Yet here’s the rub: There’s not much choice. Firms as well as corporations are subject to the sentencing guidelines, and public opinion (as well as surreptitious cellphone cameras) increasingly shine a revealing eye on the activities of large organizations. Brand image matters. Companies — and increasingly firms — understand the value of a trustworthy brand. And that word — trustworthy — is the key to culture. Clients, employees, the media, government and the general public use noneconomic criteria to evaluate the trustworthiness of an organization. You may think that this is unfair or a lousy idea. Doesn’t matter. Things like respect, courtesy, courage, careful communication, honesty and fairness count even when they can’t be counted. And so, here’s how law firms can build their own ethical cultures and, in another hundred words, why in doing so, they may create a new (billable) service for their clients. Jettison the term “ethics.” As an academic ethicist, I hate to say that, but it’s a word that gives people the creeps. Replace it with “trustworthy.” Businesspeople, including lawyers, have a sense of the practicability of trust. Firms build trustworthy cultures in three ways: They follow the laws; they align their rhetoric with their strategic objectives and operational incentives; and they attend to why people actually care about doing good things. The first of those is easy; every lawyer ought to know that, although a lawyer’s skill at wriggling around those laws needs to be placed in some degree of check when it comes to their own behavior. The second is tougher. No firm boasts of being irresponsible. They all claim to have integrity, blah, blah, blah. But do the financial incentives virtually mandate that those billable numbers get inflated? Does the firm fail to punish disrespectful behavior of staff, associates and fellow partners? If so, empirical research shows that the firm’s culture is simply doomed. The third is even harder, but is essential. All the laws and incentives in the world do little good if people simply don’t think trustworthy behavior is important. The solution to this is aesthetic: Give people the opportunity to tell their own stories about what they think is admirable at work. (I can see 75% of the readers’ eyes rolling in dismay over such gooey advice. Tough. Simply because something is soft doesn’t mean it’s not true.) Further, research shows that our neurological capabilities are designed to understand the consequences of our actions on certain sizes of groups. Law firm growth cuts directly against those hardwired features and has to be adjusted for in the organizational design of the firm. The bigger the firm, the harder it is to get individuals in it to find a common denominator other than money. Without such nonfinancial denominators, culture tends to collapse into narrow, short-term greed. Greed doesn’t foster much of an admirable culture. That means that when firms get bigger, they need to look much more carefully into how they are designed and to build back in feedback loops that force individuals to face the consequences of their actions. Moreover, lawyers need to show people how their ethical — oops, trustworthy — behavior leads to something important. I’ve argued in three books that it leads to less violence, but even if your argument isn’t so grand, people like to believe that their actions make a difference. Figure out what difference they make for the members of your firm and articulate it (and listen when people disagree). Why do this? Well, trustworthy law firm cultures are good in their own right. But if the name of the game in corporate America is to figure out how to build ethical corporate cultures, then a firm that has figured out the multifaceted dimensions of how to do it for its own organization is then well-positioned to offer real advice on how to create effective, trustworthy organizational cultures. Corporations have a better sense than law firms do that they need to figure out the culture issue, but neither one has a definitive answer for how to do it. If there ever was an initiative that could literally pay for a firm — this is it. It wouldn’t be bad for the profession either. Timothy L. Fort is executive director of the Institute for Corporate Responsibility and the Lindner-Gambal Professor of Business Ethics at George Washington University Business School. He is also a professorial lecturer at George Washington University Law School. He can be reached at [email protected].

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