Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani are not doing lawyers any favors. The two attorneys, both part of Donald Trump’s inner circle of advisors, have been the targets of late-night talk show jokes and public ridicule thanks to what can only be described as their bumbling behavior. I don’t think I have to go into the details, which are ever-evolving, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, Cohen is a central figure in the infamous Stormy Daniels investigation while Giuliani – serving in the role of President Trump’s attorney – has been making public proclamations that completely contradict previous statements the president made concerning the questionable Stormy Daniels payments. 

Given that much of the general public already has a low opinion of lawyers, these high-profile actions by these high-profile attorneys are only serving to confirm those views. This negative outlook on the legal profession hurts those who consider the practice of law their calling, it hurts the legal marketers and administrators who have devoted their careers to helping lawyers succeed, and it overshadows all the good work that attorneys do, particularly the pro bono counsel they provide to individuals and community organizations.

As an industry, what can we do to correct this image of the legal profession? The answer isn’t simple. It’s not just about promoting the good deeds of attorneys via press releases (although I certainly support that tactic). Something of greater substance must be done. I believe we are at a critical juncture, one where law firms must identify their values and take honest looks at themselves to gauge whether they are living up to the standards they have set for themselves.

What Do You Stand For?

There once was a time when brands could stay neutral on socio-political issues. That is no longer the case. As we have seen repeatedly over the last couple of years, boycotts are increasingly becoming an effective tool to hit a company’s bottom line and tarnish its reputation. As evidence, look no further than the #GrabYourWallet campaign, which urges consumers to boycott companies affiliated with Trump-related products.

Of course, law firms are not like other companies. The service they provide is one woven into the fabric of our society: The right to legal counsel has been part of the backbone of our nation’s value system. Lawyers who represent clients in matters that might conflict with their own principles often cite this right as a reason to provide counsel. The saying goes, “I might not agree with what my client is doing, but they have a right to be represented in court.”

I don’t disagree that everyone has a right to legal representation. What I do disagree with is how quick some lawyers are to discard their own moral compasses in exchange for paying clients. Advocacy is important, but so is retaining your integrity. And while it’s completely understandable that some client issues might fall in the gray area, there are other situations in which their actions are clearly reprehensible. It is this latter situation that I urge attorneys to think about more – not billable hours or firm revenue, but their own values.

(Note that the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct allow an attorney to decline or terminate a relationship with a client for a number of reasons, including situations in which “the client insists upon taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement.”)

What Are Your Values?

Of course, knowing what you stand for requires you to look within and discover what your core beliefs are. These core beliefs are your values, and ideally all actions you take – as a lawyer and as a person – fall in line with these values. After all, that is the very meaning of integrity, something that the Cohens and the Giulianis of the world seem to have a hard time grasping.

Values can cover a wide spectrum of beliefs. They are unique to the individual, although ideally there is much overlap among attorneys within a firm. In fact, I urge law firms to develop a set of values and promote those internally and externally through culture and brand. Without some unified set of values set out by a law firm, the firm risks losing its unified culture and brand identity. To maintain the firm culture and brand identity, and to ensure these values continue to be upheld by the firm and all of its internal constituents, I believe discussing shared values should be a top item in the recruitment process. (To be clear, I’m not advocating to hire only those with the same socio-political opinions. Values underlie these opinions, but they are much broader in scope.)

I also urge law firms to actually manifest these values through the work they do, rather than leveraging them as mere marketing tools. You have to actually commit to these values for them to mean anything. Otherwise, you risk diminishing the credibility of your firm.

Are You Ready for Change?

I often sense a skepticism when I talk about the intangible qualities of a law firm. At best, when I mention culture, values and brand, attorneys understand the importance of these qualities in terms of attracting clients and enhancing the bottom line. At worst, I get eye rolls.

Yet the legal industry is on the precipice of tremendous change. I believe these changes will favor law firms that identify a set of values, commit to them, and ensure that attorneys and staff abide by them. This is due in part to a couple of reasons.

First, our society is becoming more polarized. We seem to be living in two different Americas, each of which subscribes to a unique set of values. As reflected by the aforementioned consumer boycotts, we might see a similar spillover into the corporate world, with clients, in part, judging their service providers on their values.

Second, we are seeing generational changes in the legal industry. Older attorneys who are used to tradition are looking to retire. Joining the ranks are younger attorneys, both millennials and the generation after them. These younger attorneys are often motivated more by purpose and fulfillment than by money. Purpose and fulfillment arise from your value system. Law firms that neglect having a set of values risk failing to attract top talent.

Questions to Ask Yourself and Your Firm

As you proceed down the path of identifying your core values, here are some questions to help you get to the center of what you stand for:

  • Why do I practice law?
  • Why do I practice law at this particular firm?
  • What motivates me personally and professionally?
  • What fulfills me personally and professionally?
  • What is my purpose in life?
  • What do I stand for and against?

These are big questions with no right or wrong answer, as long as the answers are truthful to you. You might discover that your values do not match those of the firm for which you work, or you might discover that they fall completely in line. In any case, if you want to avoid becoming the next Michael Cohen or Rudy Giuliani, know your values, live out your values and find a firm that supports your values.

Have thoughts about core values and law firm culture? Contact me, Keith Ecker, at kecker@jaffepr.com.