All this talk about the problems of the workforce can be a little disheartening. If you look around, there's always someone who will make lemonade from the lemons, as we first discussed in this previous post, "A Few Good Programs." While the combination of declining profits and waning professionalism is creating bleak career prospects for new attorneys, the silver lining to the problems facing the profession is that they provide an opportunity for innovation in a traditionally conservative field. This week, we'll introduce you to three Law Firms that redefine not just what it means to be a law firm, but also what it means to have values in today's profit-driven economy.
But first, a necessary detour to dairy country.
The beloved ice-cream company Ben & Jerry's started out as a company that, to paraphrase Google, was decidedly "not evil." It donated 7.5 percent of its annual profits to small community projects; it used hormone-free milk; it distributed free ice-cream cones at least once a year. But when Ben & Jerry's went public, the company's social mission was gobbled up by its new fiduciary duty. So, after the multinational conglomerate Unilever made a bid for the newly public Ben & Jerry's in 2000, the idealistic dairy company did not have the legal standing to resist the buy-out. In the words of Co-founder Ben Cohen "The laws required the board of directors of Ben & Jerry's...to sell the company to an entity that was offering an amount of money far in excess of what the stock was currently trading at...despite the fact that [the board of directors] did not want to sell the company."
What happened next is truly extraordinary. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield threw their support behind a Philadelphia-based non-profit called B Lab, which was pushing for legislation that would create a new type of corporate entity: one which integrated the triple-bottom-line calculation its legal framework. They called this type of corporate entity a Benefit Corporation, or B Corp for short. So far this year, Maryland and Vermont have passed legislation allowing for Benefit Corporations in their state; the New York State Senate approved a similar bill which is waiting for a vote by the Assembly, and California, which already has a high concentration of B Corps, is also considering legislation.
This trend goes beyond liberally-minded ice cream makers; seven law firms are part of the inaugural class of Benefit Corporations. They are Montgomery & Hansen LLP , Hanson Bridgett LLP, Merritt & Merritt & Moulton , Rimon Law Group , Sumpter & Gonzalez, L.L.P. , Katovich Law Group , and Wendel, Rosen Black & Dean LLP. Of these, five are located in the Bay Area, one is in Vermont, and the other one is in Texas. One firm focuses on helping other social entrepreneurs, another practices constitutional law, but the majority handle domestic and international corporate work, with ethical practices. What makes them different? At one firm, all of the lawyers are partners. Another firms offers employees reimbursements for continuing education, full coverage of health care premiums, and six weeks or more of maternity leave. At several of these firms, women comprise a representative 50 percent of employees. Many of these firms donate between five to ten percent of profits to charity.
B Corp law firms revolutionize the foundations of the law firm. They draw on the best parts of traditional law firms (wide partnership, close community ties) while remaining competitive in today's market. By making a profit while maintaining a professional environment, they have addressed the twin problems of profitability and professionalism in one brilliant stroke of structural innovation.
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.