Sep 01, 2013 Serving our clients and civil liberties, without shareholder barriers
In 1991, I met Nobel prize-winning Milton Friedman soon after he took the stage to decry the socialism of the drug war, at the annual conference of the then-named Drug Policy Foundation. This physically diminuitive man greeted me as a mensch
when I already knew that he had insisted on “socially conscious” publicly held companies as hogwash. because “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”>
That attitude is what made me feel like a stranger with my previous best friend from junior high school — by college graduation an already very profitable entrepreneur — when we got together soon after college graduation when I was working for a major Wall Street bank, after I expressed concern about being with a company that focused so heavily on profits that it even maintained a branch in the brutally dictatorial Argentina. My friend responded in earnest as we headed to a New Haven nightclub: “Jon, it’s important to make as much money as you can.” No, we need a balance, lest we have business as usual of so many corporations that step on people’s throats, pollute, and prop up human rights violators in the name of squeezing out every last penny for its shareholders.
One reason I went to law school was because I knew that lawyers are beholden by the lawyers’ ethics rules to serve social justice to a significant extent while practicing law, including being honest, serving as responsible fiduciaries for their clients, keeping aware of the importance of pro bono work, and to donating money to organizations serving the public interest.
My law firm is about serving, without any barriers of shareholders (and I am the sole shareholder, and never had any service barriers from my former law partner Jay Marks, either). My staff has the same approach, in providing their full time, attention, caring and patience to clients. These are hardly empty words. I myself have felt nauseous hearing my lawyer colleagues who proclaim that the legal profession is “all about making money.” If they feel that way, let them switch careers. I strongly believe that putting clients ahead of money earns lawyers more money in the long run than doing the opposite, but clients must come at the forefront.
That is not to say that I repeatedly provide free and discounted service. Trials are war, and I bill accordingly. However, the practice of law is a legally protected profession, and that alone obligates lawyers to serve the public interest on top of just earning income. Not only have I repeatedly served many clients pro bono and low bono, but I have also not batted an eyelash at serving clients who are widely seen as out of the mainstream, downright controversial, and downright heinous.
Three recent occurrences inspired today’s blog entry. A potential client asked me if he was taking up my time. I replied: “Of course not. Serving criminal defendants is what I am all about.” That is not to say that I do not manage my time by ending meetings at their scheduled ending point, and scheduling people to meet or talk, rather than taking each phone call as it comes. It does mean that my staff and I give our clients and potential clients our full time and attention. This visitors’ question was a companion to many times potential clients ask: “If I hire you, who will be working for me?” I answer: “You are looking at him, in addition to my staff.”
This past weekend, I continued reading Ram Dass’s (with Rameshwar Das) new Polishing the Mirror, in which he expands upon the importance of giving people food only with love, and not anger, because the toxicity of the anger gets transferred with the food that is delivered.
Similarly, I believe strongly not only in serving my clients for their sake, but also for service’s sake, with caring and compassion. I have seen plenty of very experienced, capable and profitable colleagues serve clients politely and diplomatically, but with plenty of seeming disconnect from their clients. Where does that disconnect come from? Fear of being sucked into the client’s angst? Inexperience showing full caring for others? A belief that we are somehow separate from others, when in fact we are all truly connected? A concern that the client will respond by sucking our time? Serve, and if the client becomes a time, energy or emotional vampire, talk compassionately with the client. Serve fully.
The final one of three occurrences inspiring today’s blog entry was a quote on the wall near the checkout counter at my nearby MOM’s Organic Market — started a quarter century ago by Scott Nash in his mom’s basement — that MOM’s stopped selling bottled water awhile ago to serve environmental responsibility, even at the risk of losing customers in the process, with MOM’s not beholden to any shareholders on this nor any other matter.
You go, MOM’s. Serve the public good even if you might lose customers in the process. In the end, those same customers who bypass MOM’s today for the convenience of buying lettuce and water at the same place will come back to MOM’s, knowing how caring and high-quality the staff, market and company are, not the least which is knowing that all the store’s produce is organic.
When I interview support staff candidates, I tell them that success at my firm requires COLPP: strong communication, strong organization, loyalty to our clients and the firm, productivity and promptness. While serving is part of loyalty, it is time for me to change that performance acronym to COLPPS, with the S standing for “serve”, not slavish service, but serving others with joy and abundance, and I am obligated simultaneously to serve — not merely to manage — my staff well. Such service always pays back in innumerable, infinite, and unexpected ways, always.