Lawyers no longer in the 'right answer' business


What made lawyers successful in the past will not suffice in a vastly changing society, where the law no longer has a monopoly on defining what is considered acceptable or not. Modern lawyers will seek to widen their perspectives, empower colleagues and influence behaviour to bring greater value on a critical topic for business and society.

Many see lawyers in the traditional and comfortable role: interpret external laws and regulations to advise whether business activities are legal or not. Recent ethical breakdowns, however, highlight what had become evident in recent years: the standard for what is considered acceptable in business is no longer simply defined by the law, but rather by the public opinion long before courts open to the jury.

Whether to conduct business responsibly or not is no longer a choice. Today, job seekers worry about the ethical record of employers; employees look for purpose and meaning in their jobs; customers have high expectations of company behaviour, and the list goes on. With the transparency of the Internet and social media, there is nowhere to hide unethical practices. What happens in Vegas, does not stay in Vegas, but goes on YouTube and Twitter, as water-cooler discussions and whistle-blowing have moved online. It has therefore become paramount that leaders get their house in order and lawyers to do their part.


Many lawyers will have to change their modus operandi, moving away from being in the traditional ‘right answer’ business. Firstly, they need to reflect society’s changing expectations through providing more holistic advice and guidance. The increasing expectations of responsible business have raised the standard for what business activities are considered acceptable in society.

As a result, modern lawyers focus more on what a company should engage in and how, rather than what it could possibly get away with, within the limits of the law. Secondly, they deliver advice in a different manner. With the breakneck speed of business and social media, opinions and decisions are made quicker, more transparently and across the world. In such business climate, the traditional model of lawyers as a centre of knowledge where employees go to seek advice would require one lawyer for each employee. Ouch.

Therefore, lawyers need to turn the model up side down and accept a new role to make their colleagues better, more autonomous and responsible decision-makers, through developing their skills and understanding of the broader context as well as a sense of responsibility. A positive side-effect will be faster and better decision-making as well as reduction in compliance costs. 

Thirdly, modern lawyers will assume a greater role in influencing behaviour. The favourite pastime of drafting comprehensive and legalistic codes with the expectation that these will be implemented by the click on a button has become illusory at best. Lawyers will have to intimately understand what drives behaviour in organisations and then manage it.

This implies an active leadership role far beyond being specialists in disciplines of the law. A situation in which they influence the factors that encourage or discourage ethical business. Not always an easy task, as it involves handholding traditional leaders who pride a “if not specifically illegal, why hesitate” mindset. Furthermore, they need to challenge business targets and reward schemes, which stimulate unethical conduct.

Moreover, they need to get comfortable with technology to explore how modern solutions can nudge employees for better decisions and measure impact in real-time (read more).

Companies and law firms have to move quickly to prepare for these immediate needs. It will bring some lawyers out of their comfort zone, but into a role that has become critical for business and society. It means less focus on treating symptoms, such as dawn-raid training, and more dedicated to ensuring responsible practices in the first place. It does, however, represent an opportunity for lawyers to get an even stronger seat at the table, to drive performance and to prevent significant risks. But only if lawyers themselves are equipped with these new skills.