Can You Make Ethics Compliance a Competitive Advantage?

Among the people who think about the future of law practice and of lawyers, there is a developing recognition that ethics compliance can be a powerful competitive advantage in practice. Most lawyers view ethics compliance as a necessary (it is about as necessary as it gets) part of practicing law, but would you characterize ethics as potential competitive advantage for a law firm?

Well, you should. Ethics compliance, more specifically the demonstrated commitment to the practice of law at the highest ethical standards, is good business for law firms. This hardly needs explaining: if you hold yourself to high ethical standards, you will be better at what you do, more careful, and less likely to become engaged in distracting and potentially career-threatening ethical disputes and controversies. Beyond this, however, ethics compliance can be a unique point of distinction, a source of strong and coherent firm culture, an empowering identity for members of the firm, and a powerful symbol to clients that you are fair and wise, and exercise good judgment.  Isn’t that what you are selling as a lawyer?

Differentiate your firm. Ethics compliance is a baseline requirement for admitted attorneys in any jurisdiction, so it doesn’t seem likely that it could be a practice differentiator. In practice, however, it is clear that there are ethical gray areas, and some law business practices, while technically permissible, are not client favorites. You can distinguish your practice by steering far clear of these areas, and committing to setting the bar higher for your firm in ways that clients care about.

Build a powerful firm culture. It is axiomatic that people feel happier when they are connected to something meaningful beyond themselves (yes, even attorneys). This at least used to be a core ideal of practicing law, and the underpinning of the concept of law as a profession. When practicing law is something more than just a way to make money, attorneys feel a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a strong connection to a firm. You can build a powerful firm culture around the most fundamental organizing principle: practicing law according to the highest ethical standards.

Embrace an identity. Attorneys possess power and privilege in our society, notwithstanding all those lawyer jokes. Attorneys know things that others don’t—powerful things—that can change people’s lives for the better. Re-orienting and recommitting to practice at the highest ethical standards can be a straightforward way to embrace your attorney identity. Attorneys are different, in a good way.

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