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Law And More: What Is Role of The Law Firm?

“Too many lawyers are working to get rich and ignoring other important aspects of the profession.” – Observation of Bill Henderson, Indiana Law School profession, as discussed by Roy Strom in Bloomberg Law, June 30, 2022.

Yes, the role of law firms in general seems to have hardened into the chase after the personal acquisition of wealth. So, of course, the one-dimensional focus has been on billable hours and the demands of clients (primarily deep-pocketed ones). Not of concern or much concern for most law firms, claims Henderson, are the problems of our society.

Currently the major problem – and it is tearing society apart – is financial inequality. That has become so pervasive that, as Bloomberg reported, students in elite MBA programs have become skeptical of capitalism. No, they aren’t radicals. They don’t embrace socialism. But they are searching for an economic system that distributes wealth more equitably. 

Atypical among large firms has been Paul Weiss. Its model for what a powerful law firm is about has crossed the lines beyond Profits Per Equity Partner.

BradkarpNot that its chairperson since 2008 – Brad Karp – has been a slouch in taking care of business. He understands that to recruit, hold onto, and motivate brandname lawyers, Paul Weiss’ PEP must be better than that of the competition. In 2021, Paul Weiss, with $6.162 million PEP, pushed ahead of competitors such as Cravath.

In that blurring of boundaries the Karp leadership has been singled out as a “change agent” in the impact on society. In the influential PIVOT podcast hosted by Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, an unusual thing went down: Karp, a chairperson of a law firm not a corporate chief executive officer, had been included in the list of business leaders, such as former Disney chairperson Bob Iger, who are reimagining business accountability for a society.

Yes, “business and society” is a concept Karp has embedded in the ethos of Paul Weiss. Most recently, it was among the few law firms taking a public stance on abortion and creating initiatives to continue to make that accessible. Other firms backed off, fearing alienating clients.

In addition, Karp has been out there in lobbying, including in establishment media, with innovative solutions for addressing big challenges like firearms violence. His Fortune article focuses on tapping the authority of the Federal Trade Commission to eliminate misleading gun advertising. Yes, with Paul Weiss’ Wall Street and Fortune 50 clients, that sort of thing can have a negative impact on the law firm’s business. But the genius of Karp’s political and social savvy is that it doesn’t.

In other aspects of the role of the law firm, Karp has also been crossing lines. For instance, he went on record in Leaders Magazine as declaring that the business model of the law firm can no longer be for stand-alone legal guidance. Explicitly he said:

“We need to approach each matter more commercially and focus on providing solutions, not just presenting advice. We need to understand our clients’ business goals, professional culture, key stakeholders and risk tolerance.”

Of course, the overall questioning of the role of the law firm, along with the critical assessment of the US brand of capitalism, should disrupt how law schools screen applications for admission.

In time, that holistic kind of vetting can become the new-usual at law firms.

Interestingly, some powerful corporations, caught in their own ESG (Environmental Social Governance) values struggles, might demand their law firms to document their impacts on society.

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