Lawyers as Professionals and Citizens: Key Roles and Responsibilities in the 21st Century

Ben W. Heineman, Jr. is a former GE senior vice president for law and public affairs and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s schools of law and government. This post is based on an essay by Mr. Heineman, William F. Lee, and David B. Wilkins; the complete publication is available here.

We have written a detailed essay presenting practical vision of the responsibilities of lawyers as both professionals and as citizens at the beginning of the 21st century. Specifically, we seek to define and give content to four ethical responsibilities that we believe are of signal importance to lawyers in their fundamental roles as expert technicians, wise counselors, and effective leaders: responsibilities to their clients and stakeholders; responsibilities to the legal system; responsibilities to their institutions; and responsibilities to society at large. Our fundamental point is that the ethical dimensions of lawyering for this era must be given equal attention to—and must be highlighted and integrated with—the significant economic, political, and cultural changes affecting major legal institutions and the people and institutions lawyers serve.

We have chosen to write this essay as a joint statement from a former general counsel of a global corporation, a former managing partner of an international law firm, and a professor of the legal profession at a major law school. We therefore focus our discussion on the four ethical duties in the institutions we know best—corporate legal departments, large law firms, and leading law schools—and on the important connections among them. But we also hope that both the ethical framework we propose and our commitment to a shared responsibility for giving it practical effect will have resonance in the many other important settings in which lawyers work. The four duties are, we believe, central to what it means to be a lawyer, even as the practical expression of these responsibilities will undoubtedly vary by context and will require new and greater collaboration that reaches across many of the profession’s traditional divides.

In presenting our views, we are mindful of the dramatic changes in both the legal profession and in society that make the realization of our—or any other—ethical vision of lawyering especially difficult today. There is widespread agreement that the legal profession is in a period of stress and transition; its economic models are under duress; the concepts of its professional uniqueness are narrow and outdated; and, as a result, its ethical imperatives are weakened and their sources ill-defined. We are also mindful that some will resist the invitation to review and address the broad array of ethical issues we raise in a time in which so many of the profession’s traditional economic assumptions are in question. Nevertheless, we reject the idea that there is an inherent and irresolvable conflict between “business” and “service.” To the contrary, we believe that, while tradeoffs about resource allocation will certainly be required, the proper recognition of each of the four ethical duties we explore is ultimately essential to the sustainability of “business”—whether that is the “business” of companies, law firms, or law schools, or more broadly, the health of our economic and political system as a whole. We therefore hope that this essay will stimulate an integrated discussion among the broad range of actors with a stake in the future of the legal profession not just about the pressing economic issues in major legal institutions but also about the equally pressing concerns relating to ethical responsibilities.

The essay has six parts.

We first set out our basic framework. It explicates lawyers’ three fundamental roles as expert technicians, wise counselors, and effective leaders. It describes the sources and broad definitions of lawyers’ four responsibilities: duties to clients and stakeholders; duties to the legal system; duties to one’s own institution; and duties to the broader society. To effectively discharge these responsibilities, it argues that lawyers must not only have “core” legal competencies but also “complementary” competencies involving broad vision, knowledge, and organizational skills that, while not unique to lawyers, are essential to the counseling and leadership roles. This Part thus describes how our framework goes beyond the limits of the bar’s formal ethical rules and challenges lawyers as both professionals and as citizens.

Second, we describe the context for our analysis. While recognizing the profound importance of other entities, we explain that we have chosen leading companies, law firms, and law schools as the focus of our analysis because of their influence in setting norms for lawyers, their role in providing counselors and leaders across society, and their standing in public perception of the law. It outlines our assumptions about the large-scale forces transforming the economics of these institutions. These include accelerating competition, costs, technology development and transparency—and, in the case of companies and firms, undue focus on short-term profit maximization and profits per partner. All these factors gain greater force from globalization. A final contextual dimension is the cost and paradox of regulation of the legal profession: increasing the cost of becoming a lawyer while reducing the competition from other more effective and efficient providers of legal or legally related services. And, while noting that efforts to discharge the four responsibilities will entail allocation of resources and trade-offs, we maintain that forging a new, contemporary partnership between “service” and “business” is essential to the success, sustainability, and durability of these institutions.

Third, we discuss corporate law departments. Due to major trends in recent decades—the General Counsel becoming the senior counselor to boards and CEOs and the shift of power over money and matters from outside law firms to inside law departments—the General Counsel and inside lawyers have a special obligation to give practical meaning to the four responsibilities in leading corporations. The overarching theme of this Part is that the purpose of corporations, especially transnational ones, is the fusion of high performance with high integrity. Integrity is defined as ensuring robust adherence to formal rules, establishing binding ethical standards, advocating balanced public policy and fair political processes, and instilling the values of honesty, candor, fairness, reliability, and trustworthiness in employees. The General Counsel should also have a broad scope beyond law to include ethics, reputation, and geopolitical risk and should function as expert, counselor, and leader to assist the board and the business leaders in establishing an integrity culture in the institution. The General Counsel and all inside lawyers should aspire to be “lawyer-statespersons” who ask first “is it legal” but ask last “is it right,” and who can resolve the central tension of being both a partner to the business leader and the ultimate guardian of the corporation’s integrity. Inside lawyers have a special calling to surface, analyze, and recommend actions relating both to the corporation’s employees and to other stakeholders that go beyond what the formal legal and accounting rules require and that address the many ethical issues facing global business in challenging environments. Finally, inside lawyers must recognize that they have a shared responsibility—and the obligation to share costs—with firms to provide challenging experiences and training for young lawyers. They must also use their influence (through, for example, new supplier guidelines) to encourage law firms to join with companies in addressing vital issues like provision of pro bono services, diversity, and needed reforms in the legal system both at home and abroad by making these issues important considerations in firm retention.

Fourth, we address law firms and the imbalance between “service” and “business” that has resulted from a myopic focus on short-term economics. To be sure, there have been benefits to the profession from increased transparency concerning operation of firms and the resulting increased competition among firms. But the relentless focus on short-term economic success has adversely affected the culture and institutional integrity of firms; the training, mentoring, and development of young lawyers; the ability of firms and their lawyers to service the poor and underprivileged; and the ability of firms and their lawyers to devote time to the profession and the broader needs of society. We urge a rebalancing of the sometimes competing goals of “economic” and “professional” success. This rebalancing will require leadership and vision which will (1) affirm the priority of excellence and quality over mere hours generation; (2) articulate a vision for and create a culture which revives and restores the institutional fabric of firms; (3) affirm the commitment to meaningful mentoring and development of young lawyers; (4) affirm the commitment to the profession, including pro bono services and the “Rule of Law”; and (5) affirm the role of lawyers as the architects of a well-functioning constitutional democracy. This rebalancing will not be easy and will require commitment to long-term goals and values, even at the expense of short-term economics.

Fifth, we turn our attention to the implications of our framework for “leading” law schools. We begin from the premise that law schools play a critical—but not exclusive—role both in teaching students to become expert technicians, wise counselors, and astute leaders, and in generating knowledge about law and legal institutions (including about the legal profession itself), and about the relationship between these institutions and the health and welfare of the broader society. To achieve these twin goals—and to find a proper balance between the two—law schools should reexamine how they are preparing students for the challenges that they will face throughout their increasingly diverse careers, and how faculty members understand their obligations to the legal framework and society, and to the law school as an institution. With respect to educating students, we urge law schools to create courses that focus directly on teaching lawyering roles and responsibilities in specific contexts and that explore key complementary competencies. We also advocate breaking down the artificial barriers that currently exist between “theory” and “practice,” and between “law” and other disciplines, by developing new teaching materials (for example “business school” style case studies), new faculty (for example, Professors of Practice with significant experience outside of the academy, and team teaching with faculty from other disciplines), and a new integration between the placement function and the core educational objectives of the school. To achieve these goals, we put forward a number of specific reforms designed to restructure and refocus the third year of law school, while rejecting calls to eliminate it altogether. Finally, we underscore the critical need for deans and faculty to rededicate themselves to articulating a broad but nevertheless common understanding of the purposes of legal education and legal scholarship that gives appropriate recognition to the role that law schools—and law professors—play as part of the legal profession in addition to their role as an important part of the academy. Faculty and administrators should then use this purpose to guide the difficult tradeoffs around hiring, promotion, curricula, research, funding, and the allocation of other scarce resources that will inevitably be required to begin to achieve these common goals.

Finally, we briefly discuss ways in which leading corporate law departments, law firms, and law schools can collaborate jointly to address the needs of young lawyers, to act on the needs of the legal system and society, to bridge the divide between the profession and the professoriate, and to develop better information on lawyers and the legal profession both here and abroad. It sets out next steps which include seeking short, written comments from leading thinkers which will be published early next year and holding a conference to discuss the issues raised both in this essay and in the comments at Harvard Law School in the first half of 2015.

The complete publication is available here.

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