Culture Wars Are Forcing Big Law Firms to Balance Staff, Client Demands

In recent years, major law firms have become increasingly involved in political issues due to the changing values of corporations and their clients, as well as their own talent pool. This pressure to take a stand on social issues has resulted in law firms making public statements and taking actions to align their values with those of the corporations they serve and the talent they compete for.

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn abortion rights last year is a prime example of such social issues, after which several law firms, including Cozen O'Connor, announced they would pay for their employees' abortion travel expenses. Earlier, the murder of George Floyd by police resulted in major law firms denouncing racial inequality and making commitments to address systemic racism.

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The gradual diversification of the workforce in law firms has also led to internal discussions on issues such as `, reproductive rights, and other social issues.

According to Phillip Inglima, chair of Crowell & Moring’s management board, “There was a sense that that was either not the responsibility or the appropriate use of the firm community’s time” 20 years ago, when firms were less diverse along race, gender, and sexuality.

While many law firms would prefer not to be faced with political and social issues, states passing controversial laws, such Texas’ law prohibiting abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, have forced them to take a stance, with firms feeling like they have no choice but to respond to these issues.

James Jones, senior fellow at Georgetown University Law Center, explains that law firms cannot ignore changing values among corporations because clients are free to drop legal counsel at any time, and talent can flee to rival firms. Law firms need to be sensitive to these concerns to maintain their reputation and retain their clients and talent.

However, “This idea that Big Law firms have become these cradles of progressive action is just a caricature,” said David Wilkins, director of Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession. “What large law firms do is mostly represent the status quo, and the status quo is not a hotbed of progressive action and ideals.”

This representation of the status quo has resulted in many law firms having open communications with clients on issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some law firms have even committed to supporting causes that address systemic racism, such as Greenberg Traurig pledging $5 million over five years to support such causes as part of its Social, Racial, and Economic Justice Action Plan.

“There are people on both sides of every issue — whether it’s gun control, abortion, Saudi Arabia,” said Michael Heller, Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Cozen O'Connor. “You’re never going to be able to please everybody.”