Business Driven Outsiders and the Challenge to Ethics

There’s a great piece on Kirkland Ellis in the FT (£). It portrays a firm of scrappy outsiders, highly financialised, recruiting young lawyers on the promise of high remuneration and – interestingly- high levels of autonomy.

A former partner describes the Kirkland deal thus: “They say, ‘here’s an office, here are your phones, hire who you want, good luck and don’t screw up’.

According to the story, such approaches have lead to a dramatic uptick in financial performance and market share. In my mind, the ethics sirens started sounding. Not just because Trump’s lawyer is an alumn, or because they have built their success on the back of private equity clients (who can drive significant conflicts and aggression in the sectors they work in; see Vaughan and Coe’s work for examples); but because the long hours and highly financialised culture creates both pressures, sometimes intolerably stressful, and significant blindspots when it comes to professional rules and ethical judgment.

I was reminded of another law firm, not Kirkland, where a solicitor was describing the way he had been re-schooled to give advice to the clients. “They don’t want to read your finely reasoned yes-buts,” she was told. “They want to read a simple yes, and for you to make sure they can do what you’ve said they can do.” Make a call and deliver the future, was the message. Only those with high risk appetites and aggressive strategies need to apply.

This binding in of business success and professional advice can be read as an innocent example of commercial awareness, or it can be seen as something which risks compromising professional reputations and careers. How actually is it? The culture in these organisations and how they are regulated is vital. It was a point that Patricia Robertson QC and I  were trying to drive home at a LegalFutures conference last week. Our points may not be as sexy as the stressed-out, seriously rich lives of the Skadden Arps story, but professional leaders need to take them seriously. You can read a summary here. There is a sensible and practical side to being commercially aware and business focused, but there is also a danger of driving too hard on the gravy train.



2 thoughts on “Business Driven Outsiders and the Challenge to Ethics

  1. My experience as an in-house lawyer was that senior management welcomed an analysis of legal risk – it just has to be enunciated in a form they can readily understand. Their time is premium time.
    It is the people on the next rung or two below them who found that lawyers had a difficulty for everything they wanted to do…

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