Green eggs and ham for lawyers

I hope some of the time-poor lawyers reading this may yet have managed, when the kids were (or are) young, to include Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham in their night-time stories ritual. If so, they will know the reluctance of the unnamed lead character to try the strange dish under any circumstances – and its triumphant denouement.

Impact Economy

I would like to encourage the reader to taste another (metaphorically) alien dish.

For as long as I can remember, The Lawyer has published annually the Top 100 Law Firms, a table listing firms according the size of their revenue, and their profits per partner. The message is unequivocal: the more money / profits you generate, the more successful you are. Of course, that is not the only way to measure success and, not least because only a handful of firms can ever play in that league, many find their own definitions of success. The message is emphatic though: the bottom line is the bottom line. And I can recall many a partnership meeting where the trump card played in any debate has been the extent to which a proposal will contribute to profits per partner because without that no talent will be attracted to the firm and the existing talent will leave, so there is simply no alternative.

And so it has gone, with law firms making a significant contribution to the burgeoning economy of the nineties and early noughties; to the financial crash and its stagnating aftermath; and to the existential emergency steadily embracing us.

Doubtless partners in many city law firms are already reaching to forward this to their marketing or CSR departments asking them to fire off a response bigging up all the marvellous work they do supporting good causes, offering pro bono advice and encouraging staff to volunteer. And of course that is good. However, it is also part of what Anand Giridharadas highlights in his recent book Winners Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Whilst most law firms in the Top 100 would point out that they contribute financial and pro bono support which, by their calculation, has a value in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds each year, the sticking plasters and medicine that this provides would not be nearly as welcome or effective as those firms not supporting the system that creates the ailments in the first place, whether that is by assisting clients in tax avoidance, or expanding activities that exacerbate climate change, air pollution, land degradation and consumption beyond our planetary limits.

What the law firms offer is a gesture, which is welcome but nowhere near enough. The children of the lawyers in those firms are beginning to realise this and their children are going to know it, experientially, in their daily lives. Those in the midst of it now, for the most part, are like fish unaware of the water in which they swim.

However, because this is how it is does not mean this is how it has to be. The clients of many of these law firms are beginning to get this. A month does not go by without another article or conference about the role of purpose in business and whilst some may assume this is just the next iteration of CSR (and that attitude could, of course, be self-fulfilling), there is real evidence that there is something more substantial going on. The B Corp movement has 2,800 members across 69 countries, including 188 in the UK where it launched in September 2015. In 2016, the government commissioned a review of Mission-Led Business. Chaired by Nigel Wilson, the Chief Executive of Legal & General, this made ten recommendations including looking to advisory firms to commit to better serving mission-led businesses. The latest iteration of the UK Corporate Governance Code requires the boards of listed businesses to “promote the long-term sustainable success of the company, generating value for shareholders and contributing to wider society” and to “establish the company’s purpose, values and strategy, and satisfy itself that these and its culture are aligned”. 

These are cumulative wake up calls for law firms to adopt a less money driven approach to business. Another is the increasing evidence that purpose led organisations are more attractive to up and coming talent. It has always been a challenge for law firms to differentiate themselves from one another in any meaningful way – now the direction of travel is such that an adherence to what increasingly feels like a twentieth century emphasis on profit first and last would seem to be a sure fire way to differentiate, but not in a positive way.

My current home, Bates Wells, is one law firm that has always bucked this trend and we are reaping the benefit of these changes. In 2015, Bates Wells became the first UK law firm to certify as a B Corp meaning, among other things, that its Membership Deed provides that it will take decisions on the basis of their impact on the firm’s wider stakeholders and not merely on the effect on profits per partner. Increasingly, it is finding it is able to recruit from the magic circle as young lawyers who have been encouraged to work pro bono for non profit distributing clients there decide these are clients they want to build their careers supporting, and work which can be still be challenging and remunerative – and which often comes with less detrimental externalities.

There is clearly a lesson here for the big firms, but it is not, ‘think twice about your pro bono activity’. Perhaps your junior staff are onto something. I have worked at a magic circle firm. I know how exciting it can be working on massive multinational projects, round the clock, to ridiculous deadlines. I know it can demand a laser sharp mind, shrewd commerciality and huge stamina and provides an intense hit of adrenalin. But in those moments of calm between transactions, I would encourage you to reflect not on ‘what other job would I be so good at?’ or ‘how else could I afford all this?’, but ‘what world are we leaving to future generations?’

Putting purpose at the heart of what you do each day and considering the social impact of how you apply your skills and offer your time, will increasingly make pragmatic sense for your business, and enable you to continue speaking the same language as your more progressive clients and thoughtful staff. Perhaps, for some of you, it may also make work more meaningful – and pleasurable – for you too.

Go on, try the green eggs and ham. You may like them!


This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of July 16, 2019.