Leading Ethically: Strategies for Attorneys

Being a leader is walking a tightrope of other people’s expectations. Clients, employees, partners, and shareholders all have preferences and priorities, some of which are in tension with each other. While there is free-flowing advice about being a “good leader” from books, seminars, and motivational speakers, ethics aren’t always at the forefront of those conversations. Mike Gregory, in his CLE “Ethics: Leading by Example,” presented to RCBA members last week, covered strategies that any attorney can employ to lead ethically.

Being an ethical leader adds a layer atop the typical duties of leadership. Leading with ethics in a business or firm setting means balancing an ever-changing matrix of responsibilities and values: profit, the law, personal values, people, local and broader community concerns, and the long-term good. These responsibilities are often at-odds with one another, and as a leader, it can be hard to decide how to proceed when two areas of ethical responsibility are in conflict.

Take, for example, a situation where your law firm decides to test out going paperless as a means to reduce paper waste and conserve natural resources. In the first few weeks of the program, one of your most loyal clients expresses their dissatisfaction with your new paperless system: they’re worried about potential cybersecurity breaches. While conserving paper is a conservation effort that addresses the ethical responsibility of caring for the planet, client satisfaction also needs to be a priority.  This is not only due to the possibility of losing business from a profit-mindset, but because loyalty is a personal value that many of us strive to uphold. 

Gregory frames these kinds of conflicts as a matter of “right versus right.” Neither choice is inherently wrong or bad. Choosing to go entirely paperless, not taking into consideration the preferences of your clients, would probably have a negative impact on client satisfaction, which could eat into profits and threaten your practice and career. But being wasteful with natural resources has far-reaching impact on the planet and future generations. 

To deal with situations like this, Gregory suggests that leaders come up with a set of values or a mission statement to gain clarity about what is important to them. It can be helpful, especially, to identify the personal values that guide you in your practice of the law by writing your own ethics-focused mission statement. Many businesses have a corporate mission statement, but writing a personal mission statement or set of values can be a useful tool for all leaders, as well, to help support decision-making.

After identifying your personal values, try to name the underlying values that accompany each side of an ethical dilemma. In the going paperless example, the underlying values of reducing paper use might be conservation of natural resources or technological advancement, and values of pleasing clients might be profit, loyalty, or client satisfaction. Check to see where there are areas of overlap in your values and the values that accompany your choices.

Many businesses have a corporate mission statement, but writing a personal mission statement or set of values can be a useful tool for all leaders, as well, to help support decision-making.

There is, of course, no perfect solution for everyone and every situation. The values guiding your practice may differ from others. Gregory encourages lawyers to think about win-win solutions, finding a middle ground between opposing values. Could you keep a primarily paperless practice but make exceptions for clients who prefer physical documents? Or could you invest in augmented cybersecurity measures and sit down with your skeptical client to explain how these measures will protect them and their documents? 

There is no perfect formula for every decision-making dilemma, but strategies can be employed to help leaders find balance when making tough ethical decisions. An ethical leader should identify the values undergirding a situation, use self-knowledge to assess how those values align with the values that guide their practice, and find solutions that address the values of each party. That’s the best course to help reach win-win outcomes.