Reflection 23: Radical Decency in Business – The Nitty-Gritty

Two key perspectives inform my thinking about Radical Decency:

  1. Because work is the most powerful driver of the values that predominate in our culture, it is also the best point of leverage for change. If we can create new, habitual ways of operating at work, we will dramatically increase the likelihood of change in all areas of living; and
  1. The greatest challenges – and greatest rewards – of Radical Decency emerge in the nitty-gritty details of its application.

This Reflection seeks to demonstrate the power of these perspectives using examples drawn from the legal business, where I spent 25 years of my career.


Several years ago, a friend and large law firm partner described the following scenario. He and his partners were reviewing their budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In doing so, the managing partner revealed proposed across-the-board cuts to healthcare benefits. As a partner making more than $300,000 a year, these cuts were manageable for my friend. However, he was concerned about its effect on the support staff, people such as his secretary who made $32,000 a year.

The managing partner was quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of my friend’s concern but then made the following points: A key component of the firm’s continuing prosperity was its ability to attract experienced attorneys and practice groups and that, in turn, was dependent upon maintaining its “per partner profits;” a key industry statistic for measuring profitability. Absent a cut in benefits, the firm’s ranking in this vital area would drop from 7th to 11th in its geographic region.

The managing partner also acknowledged that the firm could, perhaps, hold the line on benefit cuts in the next year or two. But, then, the “inevitable” cuts would be more draconic and, hence, more disruptive in the lives of the support staff.

The cuts were made.

This, to me, is the truest face of our indecent culture. Innumerable meetings, quietly taking place in comfortable offices, where “reasonable” people “reluctantly” make “inevitable” choices because they “have to.” Their unbridled greed and ambition – “we ALWAYS need to make more money” – is almost never acknowledged. And the effect of their choices on the less privileged – even those sitting right outside their offices – is barely a blip on their radar screens.


One of the geniuses of the predominant culture is its sheer pervasiveness. It is reinforced by a seemingly endless array of structural impediments and values-based assumptions that, cumulatively, make meaningful change seem like an impossible, pie-in-the sky dream. In the situation just described, for example, the very structure of the law firm made resistance close to impossible.

Most partners, my friend included, are wildly busy tending to matters that have nothing to do with firm management. Growing and maintaining their practices, in a highly competitive environment, is more than a full time job.

So the managing partner, backed by the firm’s financial people, went into the budgeting process knowing so much more than a rank and file partner (such as my friend). He also had all the firm’s organizational momentum behind him and, if he was any good at his job, had lined up support from the firm’s most powerful partners before the meeting ever took place.

In addition, any other outcome would have flown in the face of a whole series of unspoken assumptions: Generating as much profit as possible for the firm’s partner/owners is the unquestioned priority; differences in income between partners and nonprofessionals has no meaningful ethical overtones; the only way to remain competitive with a crucial constituency – lateral hires – is to be highly profitable; and so on.


The hopeful thought I want to offer is this: A very different, radically decent approach to business is possible – even the legal profession! And importantly, it can be done in ways that maintain and, perhaps, even enhance a firm’s economic viability.

But if a firm takes an ad hoc approach to change – an extra employee benefit here, a pro bono project there – meaningful and lasting change will never take place. The problem? This approach leaves the firm’s usual ways of doing business intact and unchallenged. Then, when an inevitable down year hits, its experiment in being a little more decent will be quickly sacrificed to the god of 6 and 7 figure partner incomes.

What is needed instead is a systematic rethinking of the firm’s perspective on what it means to be successful and how to go about achieving it. Profitability is essential. The firm is, after all, an economic entity. But it needs to be priority 1A, just below and clearly subordinate to decency.

Adopting this approach would demand a re-thinking of many of the industry’s business-as-usual practices: partner, associate and staff compensation; billing; associate evaluations; and so on. It would also call into question some of taken for granted ways in which law is practiced.

But these shifts would not be a utopian exercise in self-immolation. To the contrary, since Radical Decency requires accountability for all of our choices, an insistence on a quality legal product, timely delivered, would be a given. Indeed, since there would no longer be an implicit exception for certain senior partners and rainmakers, the overall quality of the legal work might even be enhanced. Moreover, to maintain decency to self – as well as to others and the world – implementation would need to occur in ways, and at a pace, that maintained economic viability.

One key to success would be the firm’s systematic, forthright and public embrace of this more decent way of operating in word – and in deed. Our cynicism about business is profound. No one expects a business to be decent. So, the firm’s commitment would initially be seen as just another marketing ploy. However, implemented in this full-bore way, that initial reaction would shift over time.

Potential clients would begin to realize that the firm’s billing policies were transparent and fair. They would also find that, at this firm, there was no risk of over lawyering or of an overhyping of conflicts to drive up fees. In short, a competitive edge would emerge that – because it is so unusual – would more than offset the loss of clients who think they need an attack dog attorney.

Its effect on the quality of attorneys and support staff would also be dramatic. Fully committed to fair compensation and work/life balance, the firm would, in this way as well, carve out a meaningful competitive niche. Many extraordinary attorneys – some with considerable books of business – would be drawn to such a firm. And the firm would be positioned to build an extraordinarily capable and loyal support staff.

Note that many firms that say all the right things. “We put clients first.” “We are a friendly, family oriented place to work.” “We offer quality legal services at a fair price.”

So a key element in establishing credibility – and uniqueness – would be to express these values, not just in words, but also through concrete and visible systems. In billing, for example, the firm could diverge from hourly billing; a system that so transparently invites (indecent) manipulation at clients’ expense. It could instead estimate cost in advance; collect a premium if the job is done for a lesser amount; and charge a rate that is meaningfully reduced but still above cost, if the estimate is exceeded. This approach would decisively differentiate the firm from its competitors’ “nice words” about putting clients’ interests first.

Similarly, metrics used to evaluate associates could fully credit time spent on pro bono projects – or at an ailing parent’s bedside. No more “we encourage community involvement but still expect 2,000 billable hours;” a formulation that demands unreasonable sacrifices at home – or padded time sheets. Smart accountants could also develop metrics that factor in values beyond profitability; that no longer treat “personnel” and “plant and equipment” as undifferentiated expense items.

In these ways as well, the firm could forcefully make the case that it is truly different. And, equally important, it would embed these new values in its taken for granted structures – helping, in this way, to guard against the ever-present danger of sliding back to the industry’s business as usual ways of operating.


Is any of this easy? Of course not. But think of the possible pay-offs. How would your life look if you were able to maintain (and even enhance) your business’s economic viability and, at the same time, make it a place where your most decent and humane instincts – instead of being marginalized and suppressed – were a central focus? And since business is the primary driver of the indecent values that predominate in our culture, think of the impact if – noticing the success of businesses such as yours – this approach increasingly became business’ new norm?