A better way – how to build a framework for the conscious law firm

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] May 28, 2020

In the third and final part of a series*, Dr Christian Duperouzel explains how law firms can develop a structure for creating a conscious law firm that enriches stakeholders and puts the focus on serving a higher purpose rather than simply making profits.

So what might a conscious law firm look like? This section of the paper will build upon the last, and integrate the range of conscious practices utilised by both Marque Lawyers and Hive Legal in their frame-breaking operations.

In presenting this framework, the dimensions of analysis that are adopted will reflect the components of the conscious capitalism model (Figure 1) that was illustrated in Part 1 of this series. Starting with the higher purpose that a conscious law firm is set up to serve, the exploration will then turn to conscious leaders, and the important role that they play as crafters of a conscious culture. To close out the characterisation, the orientation that these firms have towards their various legal stakeholders will be outlined before the examination will turn to the next steps in the conscious evolution of traditional law firms.

Despite my best efforts to present a comprehensive framework, it must be acknowledged that there is a variation of possibilities as to what form the conscious law firm can take. Just like the differences in conscious practices between Marque Lawyers and Hive Legal serve their higher purposes in unique ways, so does the potential exist for other conscious practices not covered here to be instituted in other bodies of legal practice.

In this sense, the description of Marque Lawyers and Hive Legal as frame-breakers is apt because the way they do things does not fit traditional moulds or expectations. Being the very thing that marks them as unique, it is also the point of difference that makes them exceptional, and other firms that are hoping to enter this space would do very well to use them as inspiration for what can be achieved. Having stated that, let us now traverse the elevated terrain of the conscious law firm.

Higher purpose

The conscious law firm has crystal-clear clarity on the purpose that it is set up to serve, and this purpose extends beyond the furtherance of any personal interests that the individuals who comprise it may have.

While the members of the conscious law firm recognise that profits are important, they do not orient the whole venture towards maximising them. Understanding that its professionals and the clients that it serves are the lifeblood of the business, its purpose considers and integrates the core needs of these stakeholders in dealing with the business.

Part of this approach for legal professionals would be for the firm to facilitate meaningful work and allow for the flexibility that enables a more harmonic integration of their work and personal lives. For clients, this may be to go the extra mile in delivering value, not only in the work performed, but also with increased relationship capital or the strengthening of networks with other key players in their industry.

The term ‘higher purpose’ implies a spiritual dimension to the purpose of the organisation, or calling[1], which transcends any lower-order ego needs that are satisfied through its functioning. Before this calling can be arrived at collectively, it is incumbent on the legal professionals who work within the firm to be living their own calling in the law. This ensures that these individuals will not be working against the higher purpose of the firm, and thereby sabotaging its authentic offering.

In the absence of this ego interference, the members of the firm can come together to connect with the shared purpose that emerges from a deeper collective awareness, and in that process crystallise the complementary roles that each of them has to play in the integral working of the organisation. Through the fulfilment of these roles, not only do the professionals enjoy the intrinsic benefits that flow from living their calling, but the law firm as a collective comes to thrive as well.

As a by-product of having members who are inspired, engaged and energised in what they do, the working culture of the firm is moulded in profoundly positive ways. The effect of this is that a greater quality of work is produced for clients, who not only benefit from the quality of the service rendered, but also from the dynamic interactions that they have with these committed professionals.

This produces a virtuous cycle that brings more business to the firm. That is, as the fulfilment of the firm’s purpose continues to expand, other stakeholders who resonate with it will be drawn to engaging the firm. Having this higher purpose at the centre of what they do thus bolsters the capacity of the conscious law firm to serve, prosper and endure into an increasingly uncertain future.

Conscious leadership

Leadership in a conscious law firm is not concentrated in the upper echelons of the organisation. Rather, it is dispersed among all members of the firm. In my research exploring the role of a lived calling in driving leadership behaviour, it was found that when an individual is living in alignment with their calling, they will naturally manifest leadership behaviour (such as responsibility, service and integrity)[2]. In the conscious law firm, it is thus crucial to have individuals who are living their calling throughout the organisation, irrespective of the more formal role that they may occupy.

This requires them to have a spiritual connectedness from which ‘spiritual intelligence’ will emerge. This, along with the quality of presence, will become core competencies of leading in a conscious economy.

Possessing the spiritual awareness that allows them to discern their higher purpose and understand how that complements the fulfilment of the higher purpose of the firm, these inspired ‘leaders’ will work together to clarify the collective path to be taken, and inspire each other to travel along that path and make their unique contributions. By having a clear vision of how the higher purpose of the business can be fulfilled, they can work synergistically towards the creation of value for stakeholders, and the harmonisation of their interests in bringing about mutually beneficial outcomes over the long term.

With leadership being demonstrated in this informal and decentralised way, an organisation does not have to structure itself in a rigid hierarchical fashion. Having a largely flat structure, the conscious law firm does not have partners per se, but rather leading members whose chief contributions are the expertise and practical experience that they have gained during their time in the profession, and the guidance that they can offer to less experienced members of the firm as mentors.

In this sense, the structure of the conscious law firm looks more like a co-operative, where each member has an equity stake in the firm[3] and the ownership incentive to fulfil the higher purpose of the firm. As the firm succeeds in meeting this mandate, all of the members prosper in terms that are both intrinsic and extrinsic.

Importantly, these conscious leaders will intentionally cultivate a conscious culture within the firm. Understanding implicitly that culture reflects consciousness, these agents of evolution will play a key role in role-modelling the behaviour that is expected for the firm to reach its potential.

Conscious culture

The culture of a conscious law firm is akin to its spirit, and each of its members have the responsibility of contributing positively to it.

While it is true that leaders have a very influential role in shaping the cultural values, principles and practices in their organisations, that authority is not centralised in a conscious law firm. As was discussed above, the conscious law firm employs a flatter structure and has members rather than partners. This orients and impacts the culture of these firms in a powerful way, because each of these members as equity holders needs to take full ownership to craft the cultural fabric of the business.

Starting with them, these members must lead by example and demonstrate the types of behaviour that they want to be embodied across the firm as cultural norms. Incentivised themselves to behave in ways that contribute to the common good of the firm, and not the enrichment of themselves over others, this marks a significant difference between the culture of a conscious law firm and the cultures of more traditional firms.

An extremely important part of creating a conscious culture within these firms is for their members to be living their calling, or vocation, in the law. My research suggests that as an individual lives their calling in alignment with their spirit (from which their calling emerges), they will not only manifest leadership behaviour, but also the core qualities of the human spirit that make for thriving organisational cultures; for example, integrity, service, humility, trust and openness[4].

While the culture of traditional law firms is more centred in ego consciousness, the cultural foundations of conscious law firms are grounded in these virtues of spirit. Being the connective tissue that unites human beings together across contexts, this spirit strengthens stakeholders’ relationships and allows them to better align with the purpose, people and processes that comprise the company.

A company like American footwear and accessories business TOMS, for example, whose founder Blake Mycoskie devised the one-for-one business model (a socially conscious approach to doing business whereby for each product a consumer buys, a second identical product is donated to a charitable cause), inspires people to want to buy their products or contribute to the furtherance of their purposeful vision in other ways[5].

For a conscious law firm, the culture that they create will bring together a community of stakeholders who in one way or another resonate with their core purpose. While not everybody will choose to get on board with the firm, those that do will be enriched by the association, if not through extrinsic means, then by the intrinsic derivation of meaning at the very least.

Stakeholder orientation

The conscious law firm prioritises creating value with and for its various stakeholders, which include employees, clients, the government, professional associations (e.g. law societies), regulatory bodies (e.g. legal practice boards) and the wider community.

In making sense of their place in the legal milieu, the members of the conscious law firm don’t view the firm as an independent player in a zero-sum game. Seeing the bigger picture of which they are a part, and recognising the interdependent nature of life and the human foundations of business, their orientation is to add value in order to produce mutually beneficial outcomes for the people and organisations that they function alongside. As this more evolved thinking goes, healthy stakeholders make for a thriving legal ecosystem, which benefits all participants in the long run.

In terms of the relationships that they have with these various stakeholders, the members of the conscious law firm are cautious to not take a short-term approach, where the inclination is to act out of self-interest. As this pertains to clients, for example, the focus is not on billing them for the highest amount possible on any one matter to bolster the end-of-year revenues of the firm, but on coming to a fair and collaborative arrangement on costs which fosters a more sustainable partnership into the future.

Another way that this type of long-term perspective might manifest itself within the law firm is a reshaping of the working conditions for its lawyers. Valuing the intellectual and relational capital that has been built during their time with the firm, and not wanting to lose them to burnout or other adverse circumstances, the firm might employ a more empathetic, flexible and rewarding system of working that fulfils the holistic needs of this important stakeholder group.

Another thing that the conscious law firm takes very seriously is its stewardship responsibility towards the profession. Understanding itself to be an integral member of the legal community, its members take the onus of participation upon themselves to do what they can to enrich the workings of the profession.

Presenting its own challenges in terms of managing these members’ workloads within the firm, allowances are made to facilitate this important external work, even if it does not always generate revenue for the firm. The goal in reconciling this tension is to achieve an integral balance in the service of this diverse range of stakeholders, the majority of which will operate in close proximity to the firm in its daily workings.

In working to meet this mandate, the core focus of the firm is preserved as a guiding principle, and not undermined in the service of the broader professional good.

The next steps

The transformation that I am advocating for here, from the traditional model of practising law to the creation of conscious legal enterprises, is not about change. Rather, it is about evolution.

As human beings, and given the organisational systems which allow us to work cohesively in the service of a worthwhile purpose, our natural inclination is to tap into our innate potential, and grow towards the full expression of it. The traditional dimensions of the law add richness to aspects of its functioning, and help those who work within it to identify with the cultural history of the profession. However, I believe that this traditional way of operating law firms is holding these entities back by stifling their ability to meaningfully engage and serve their stakeholders, and successfully adapt in the face of large-scale challenges such as those that are currently being experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is important to understand here that the instruments of this evolution are not limited to the tangible features of their daily work, or the external forces of the market that continually demand the attention of principals and their strategic responsiveness. At a much more foundational level, this evolution takes place within each of them as people. Being the evolution in consciousness, it requires the courage and discipline to take an inward journey that disassociates the self from the ego, and aligns it with the life-giving spirit, which as I have expressed throughout this paper is the source of all meaningful prosperity at both the individual and organisational levels.

As this journey is taken at the personal level by enough individuals in an organisation, the fabric of that organisation’s culture will reconstitute to reflect this shift in consciousness at the personal level.

With this, it should not be forgotten that an organisation such as a law firm finds its life in the relationships that its members have with themselves and with each other. From low-quality relationships in these domains come low-quality outcomes, and if the individuals who enable their functioning are merely surviving due to their slavish adherence to the demands of ego consciousness, then so will the organisation languish across the multiple dimensions of its being.

While profits might still be made in the short term, morale may be dangerously low and the depth of stakeholder relationships may not be strong enough to sustain engagement, and a future existence, in the long term.

As the substance of this paper has shown, there is a better way, a more holistic and prosperous way of organising law firms in the modern, and increasingly conscious, economy. Being integral members of the legal community, the evolving consciousness of these firms will play no small role in the fulfilment of the core purposes of the profession that extend far beyond the figures in a balance sheet to the noble achievement of a secure, just and thriving society.

Dr L. Christian Duperouzel is a lecturer at Curtin Law School and a writer, speaker and conscious leadership consultant.

* The other two articles in the series are:

Part 1: Creating the conscious law firm: What traditional law firms can learn from the conscious capitalism movement

http://www.lmhub.com.au/creating-conscious-law-firm-traditional-law-firms-can-learn-conscious-capitalism-movement/

Part 2: The conscious law firm – and the fascinating cases of Marque Lawyers and Hive Legal

http://www.lmhub.com.au/conscious-law-firm-fascinating-cases-marque-lawyers-hive-legal/

Footnotes

[1] A calling is defined as a consuming, meaningful and service-oriented purpose that people experience toward a domain that is consistently expressed in their daily lives.

2 L. C. Duperouzel, ‘The role of a lived calling in driving the leadership accomplishment of a virtuous purpose’ (PhD Thesis, Curtin University, 2016); L. C. Duperouzel, “Reaching your verdict: A vocational guide to whether or not to study law” in K Lindgren, F Kunc and M Coper (eds), The Future of Australian Legal Education (Thomson Reuters, Pyrmont, 2018) 159.

3 What percentage of the equity stake that each person owns could be determined by a consensus vote among all other members of the firm, as could the criteria (e.g. experience, core competencies that serve the firm’s higher purpose) that are applied in making the determination. Utilising this method of determining equity stakes would have the effect of engendering qualities such as trust, transparency, fairness, commitment, respect and accountability in the firm’s culture.

4 Duperouzel, n 2.

5 B Mycoskie, Start something that matters (Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2012).