Enforcing the Legal Profession's Values in Law Firms

"Spirit means life, and both life and livelihood are about living in depth, living with meaning, purpose, joy and a sense of contributing to the greater community. A spirituality of work is about bringing life and livelihood back together again." The Reinvention of Work by Matthew Fox (no relation, unfortunately)

In the MacCrate Report, an ABA Task Force of prominent lawyers, judges, and professors stated that one of the four fundamental values of the legal profession is Professional Self-Development - the obligation of a lawyer as a member of a learned profession to select employment which allows the lawyer to develop his or her personal values and professional goals. It is absolutely critically important that lawyers first recognize their values and the fundamental values of the profession and decide not to violate them.

Fundamental Values Meet Work Environments

What are your non-negotiable values and goals? What are the fundamental values of the legal profession? Does your legal degree promise you a workplace in which you gain knowledge of a craft, have intellectual stimulation, autonomy, are treated with respect, have reasonable income and the opportunity to provide a meaningful service to others?

For thirty-five years, I have heard about situations where lawyers are working in firms where they have little autonomy, receive no meaningful training, have little responsibility, are given work that is boring and intellectually unstimulating, have almost no potential for advancement, dislike their colleagues and are treated not only disrespectfully, but abusively. They complain about the lack of time for family and friends, their loss of control over their lives, their lost dreams and their longing to do "something that matters".

I vividly recall the deep concern of Gray Thoron, the former dean of Cornell Law School about the positions then (in the early 90's) being taken by the schools graduates. He thought that many of them were going to large institutions where they were not enjoying the privileges that come with being a lawyer and a professional - autonomy and the opportunity to provide a service to others.

In a recent posting in the Forum "dutch" tells us about the promises made by a law firm to hire him -- he would be an associate, work no more than 50 hours a week and eventually become a partner. When he came to work he was told he would be a law clerk and paid a lesser amount until he passed the bar. He passed the bar and still is being paid as a law clerk, is working 70 hours a week and has been told that no one is made a partner.

In the Counsel Connect Seminar, Diana Brodman Summers asked: "Is it really possible for an associate attorney to have a say in the hours they work? A friend of mine is an associate in a big downtown Chicago firm and has been since graduation '93. She works at least 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. Her reviews are good and she has gotten several raises. This March she asked her boss if she could work only 6 days a week to have one full day with her family. Her boss pointed to a stack of resumes on his desk and informed her that if she didn't want the job, he could replace her in a snap." I wrote back and suggested to Diana: The question is not what the partner said to your friend in the big firm in Chicago but what your friend did next.

Is there any excuse for a professional treating another professional (on anyone) this way? Why should the associate who is being mistreated have to choose between accepting such treatment and leaving if it is the partner who is violating the fundamental values of the profession?

Holding Firms Accountable

Does your present work situation require you to act contrary to your long held beliefs and contrary to what you understand are the obligations, duties and privileges of a lawyer? If so, what should you do within your law firm and who else has an obligation to help you?. Should you first find out whether other associates and partners share your views? Do they have similar stories about such treatment? Should you hold a meeting of associates, form a Women's Committee, plan a retreat, hire consultants? Should you draft a list of issues and present them to the partnership and request that the partners uphold the fundamental values of the legal profession?

There are certainly examples of law firms who have taken action in these areas; i.e.,. in 1995, the firm of Faegre & Benson was rated as one of the top two law firms to work for with associates praising the firm for its "training and guidance", "feedback", "treatment by partners", and "relations among associates". One partner was quoted as saying in an interview "In Minneapolis, we have the tradition of 'Minnesota Nice'. People here tend to treat each other like human beings."

Are partners bound to carry out the fundamental values of our profession - to treat others with dignity, to help lawyers develop as professionals and to improve the profession? The second of the four MacCrate Fundamental Values of the Legal Profession is the Obligation to Strive to Improve the Profession by Assisting in the Training of New Lawyers and Ridding the Profession of Bias Based on Race, Religion, Ethnic Origin, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, or Disability. Is it unethical and unprofessional for partners (or associates) of a law firm not to provide training or responsibility for associates or to treat anyone disrespectfully or abusively?

William D. Goren, a consultant/educator on the ADA and on Preventive Law and a trainer mediator, another participant in the Counsel Connect Seminar asked "Can you have a professional environment without the environment supporting your core values?" I would add to that that you cannot have it without an environment that supports the legal profession's core values, especially Professional Self-Development. Is the environment described by Diana and dutch and others who have written to the Forum over the last year only outrageous or does it amount to unethical and unprofessional conduct?

Why does this situation continue to exist? Is no one willing or able to change it? Whose obligation is it to ensure that there is an environment in the law firm that supports these values? Whose obligation is it to enforce compliance with these values?

  1. The associate who is mistreated?
  2. The other associates?
  3. The partner who is acting unprofessionally?
  4. The partner who is aware of this behavior?
  5. The managing partner?
  6. The local bar association which hears complaints from its members?
  7. The law school career services director who hears complaints from students and alumni/ae about unfair treatment?
  8. The career planning professionals whose obligation is to help lawyers find positions consistent with their goals and values.?
  9. The appropriate state and federal agencies?

Is anyone aware of a case where a law firm partner has retaliated against an associate who expressed directly or indirectly his or her workplace dissatisfaction based on such factors as abusive treatment, meaningless work, and unreasonable time demands? Do we believe that such an atmosphere should be allowed to prevail in our profession? Would such an act of retaliation be acceptable?

If we continue to allow such behavior within the law firm environment, as professionals must we then recognize our collective responsibility for the widespread lawyer dissatisfaction?

There is also some evidence that there are lawyers in law firms who find this behavior unacceptable but fear recognition or retaliation if they respond in a public way. In the Counsel Connect Seminar, an anonymous message was posted by a sixth year associate in a large (220 lawyer) firm "I can tell you that we are lurking here. However, there is a substantial and justified fear of getting caught posting in a forum like this. Most of the lawyers at my level hate their jobs. The hours are too long, the demands are too high, the work in large cases is dull. Most of us, however - including me - don't know how to get out of it." Is the fear of recognition, of retaliation, for anyone participating in a Forum or a Chat discussion a reality? Were it true, what does that say about our profession if we as lawyers are not prepared to speak out when lawyers are abused and when the fundamental values of our profession are betrayed?

Another message posed by "Bill" says "how about an associates union?" Is that unrealistic or inappropriate? Why? What about comments about unethical billing and his suggestion that the federal government regulate law firms the same way it regulated bakeries and meat packers in an earlier era. What do you think about his exhortation "Try to organize your fellow associates, and take your demands to the partners. Quit acting like a serf, and stand up for the profession."

Attached to this article is a survey we at the Center for Professional Development in the Law have developed and used to ascertain the causes and the level of dissatisfaction of lawyers in the law firm. We encourage you to complete this survey.


Survey of Satisfaction of Lawyers in A Law Firm

Please Indicate By A "D" (Descriptive) or An "N" (Not Descriptive)
Whether These Phrases Describe Your Current Work Environment

____The atmosphere is warm and personal.
____The firm is a special place, an enjoyable place to work.
____My advancement is determined more by quality than quantity.
____I am respected and treated as a colleague by my peers.
____I am respected and treated as a colleague by my superiors.
____Political intrigue and backbiting is almost nonexistent.
____The firm is an attractive option to a smaller firm.
____I have considerable control over the selection of my cases/matters.
____The opportunity for professional development is very good.
____I have considerable input into policy and management decisions.
____The intellectual challenge of my work is great.
____The financial rewards are great.
____There is an atmosphere of teamwork, cooperation and support.
____There is substantial, competent paralegal and clerical assistance.
____The firm provides a stable secure environment.
____I have professional autonomy and independence.
____I have enough time for myself and to spend with family.
____The level of pressure/tension on the job is acceptable.
____The pressures from clients re cost of services is acceptable.
____There is good training but I get an appropriate amount of responsibility.
____I get feedback on my work.
____I have a mentor who provides support and encouragement.
____Few associates leave the firm voluntarily.
____Few law students or laterals have rejected offers in the last few years.
____I expect to remain here for the foreseeable future.

Adapted from Whose Obligation Is It To Insure Compliance Within the Law Firm of the Fundamental Values of the Legal Profession by Ronald W. Fox, Esquire