February 25, 2024

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Student Opinion: Business Lawyers Can Have Social Impact, but They Need to Step Up

Student Opinion: Business Lawyers Can Have Social Impact, but They Need to Step Up

Picture via OSCE.org

By Emmett Chan

LOS ANGELES — Many who aspire toward a career in the legal field are motivated by a desire to promote significant change that often advances ideals such as equity and human rights. Typically, these aspirations focus on careers involving areas of law like criminal justice, civil rights and public interest. 

 

However, even business lawyers can make a positive difference that goes beyond generating revenue for their clients—in fact, their contributions may be of similar importance.

 

Traditionally, social responsibility has been an expectation for all lawyers, given that the American Bar Association, or ABA, encourages in its model rules that lawyers perform at least 50 hours of pro bono work, or free legal services provided to those in need.

 

Still, these 50 hours are not a requirement, meaning that many lawyers have the ability to ignore or skimp on their pro bono obligations.

 

The American Lawyer reports that in big law firms, “Lawyers averaged 54.5 pro bono hours in 2021, a 12.9{e538325c9cf657983df5f7d849dafd1e35f75768f2b9bd53b354eb0ae408bb3c} decline from 62.6 hours the year before. Additionally, fewer than half of the lawyers, 48.8{e538325c9cf657983df5f7d849dafd1e35f75768f2b9bd53b354eb0ae408bb3c}, completed at least 20 pro bono hours in 2021, down from 51.7{e538325c9cf657983df5f7d849dafd1e35f75768f2b9bd53b354eb0ae408bb3c} in 2020.”

 

Although various factors could be influencing these statistics, they are a sign that pro bono work may not be enough.

 

However, business lawyers are in a uniquely powerful position to make a social impact, tying business with social impact to make their efforts not only commendable, but profitable.

 

Scott Curran of The American Lawyer explains that “Sophisticated global nonprofits, family offices, social financiers, impact investors, social enterprises and entrepreneurs all comprise the emerging social impact client portfolio. And they are all using lawyers. Toms Shoes, Warby Parker and Thrive Market are just a few of the growing number of high-profile businesses with an integrated social purpose.”

 

By doing necessary legal work for these businesses, law firms help generate profit for both themselves and their clients, meaning that their work is not only sustainable, but will attract further investment.

 

Furthermore, law firms can serve as direct social actors, using their own resources for societal change.

 

Curran clarifies: “Some firms have large foundations that make grants. Other firms have operating charities that deploy lawyers to support programs working on rule of law and access to justice in developing countries. Some firms undertake community service initiatives involving all firm staff (not just attorneys). The list goes on.”

 

Law firms are seeing calls from not only clients, but their own workforce, to prioritize their environmental, social and governance performance, or ESG. 

 

“This whole movement towards ESG [environmental social justice] is a huge opportunity for law firms to collaborate with their clients for the greater good, because every company is trying to figure out whatever the next normal is going to be. And lawyers are the hub of every industry in the world,” said Pamela Cone, founder and CEO of Amity Advisory, a sustainability, ESG and social impact consulting firm.

 

But equally as important to the concept of how business lawyers can better society is a concept that is vital to the legal profession, the structure of government and the operation of society: the Rule of Law.

 

On Apr. 30., 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden proclaimed the theme of Law Day 2021 as “Advancing the Rule of Law Now,” bringing national attention to the then-inconspicuous May 1 holiday. 

 

Biden deemed the Rule of Law “a critical vehicle for delivering the full promise of American democracy to all of our people.”

 

“Without it, quality and justice cannot be advanced, human rights cannot be protected, democratic norms and values cannot be secured, and disagreements cannot be peaceably resolved,” he wrote.

 

Despite the importance that the Rule of Law holds, Business attorney Kimberly Lowe believes that this concept is not clearly defined in common use. 

 

“The overuse of the phrase ‘Rule of Law’ is unfortunate since it dilutes how important this concept is to America and its history,” she asserts. 

 

The American Bar Association describes the Rule of Law as “a set of principles, or ideals, for ensuring an orderly and just society.” 

 

The World Justice Project, an organization dedicated to advancing the Rule of Law, solidifies this concept by specifying four principles: accountability, just laws, open government and accessible & impartial dispute resolution.

 

The organization is able to reflect individual countries’ adherence to the Rule of Law, creating the annual WJP Rule of Law Index by measuring nine crucial factors: Constraints on Government Powers; Absence of Corruption; Open Government; Fundamental Rights; Order and Security; Regulatory Enforcement; Civil Justice; Criminal Justice; and Informal Justice.

 

According to the 2021 edition of the WJP Rule of Law Index, the United States’ score has declined once more — the latest in a worrying trend for the Rule of Law’s status in America.

 

It might seem as though the lawyers primarily responsible for upholding and promoting the Rule of Law would be those directly involved in ensuring human rights and fair enforcement of laws — for example, those practicing civil rights law.

 

However, as evidenced by the diversity of the factors measured in the index, an important aspect of promoting respect for the Rule of Law is ensuring that all citizens abide by all parts of the law, including business.

 

Lowe explains that the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights clarifies that the U.S. Constitution gives specific powers to state governments and the three branches of the federal government.

 

Thus, Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress different powers to create laws governing various areas of society, many of which concern business — such as laws regulating interstate and international commerce, as well as laws regulating intellectual property (e.g. patents for inventors). 

 

Lowe frames these Constitutional principles in a modern context, maintaining that “business lawyers help their clients comply with the laws that have been established as a result of these Powers.”

 

Of course, business lawyers can only effectively promote the Rule of Law if they exercise integrity and make efforts to educate others.

 

John H. Quinn, name partner at Quinn, Racusin & Gazzola Chartered, points out that lawyers are bound to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which require that every lawyer should not only serve as “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice,“ but also “should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.”

 

These rules must be applied in practice, meaning that some lawyers fail to advance the Rule of Law and its accompanying reinforcement of justice and democracy. Therefore, committees like the Rule of Law Working Group have launched initiatives “to get business lawyers actively involved in helping support the Rule of Law.”

 

Business law is a broad and influential field with vast potential for promoting significant change.

 

Initiatives like the ESG movement, the World Justice Project and the Rule of Law Working Group are crucial to spreading awareness of the ways in which business law can do good.

 

However, the responsibility falls on business lawyers and their firms to turn potential into action.

 

As an undergraduate student, I admit a lack of knowledge, perspective and experience regarding legal professions and the impact that they can have on society. 

 

However, I can still spark worthwhile dialogue on the issue of how business law can help advance the Rule of Law and make meaningful societal progress. Such discussion is crucial to people like myself who are considering the areas of law we are interested in pursuing. 

 

In the context of prospective lawyers — and the entire legal landscape — business law is an important legal field that covers many different types of law. It cannot be ignored in conversations about the Rule of Law and the significance of legal professions.