Law Firm Transparency: Whether or How to Disclose?

by Vault Law Editors | April 28, 2011

  • My Vault

The legal world is no longer on a need-to-know basis; it’s on a have-to-know everything track. Transparency talk has pervaded discussions from law school employment statistics to law firm compensation, and the talk is growing louder. Vault decided to gauge the transparency fuss in this year’s law firm associate survey (to be released later this year), which was completed by approximately 16,000 respondents from 350 law firms this year. The new transparency questions asked associates to rate (on a scale from 1-10) their firms on the following points:

  1. Individual partners generally treat associates with respect, and
  2. The firm’s leadership is transparent in its decision making.

The results were pretty bleak, with transparency receiving an average rating of only 6.04 (in other words, a D -) from law firm associates, far behind other factors like satisfaction, treatment by individual partners and overall business outlook, which received average ratings of 7.29, 8.39 and 8.42, respectively. So associates want a clearer picture—should law firms listen?

Vault’s Brian Dalton took this question to the 2011 NALP (The Association of Legal Career Professionals) Conference on Wednesday in a panel discussion entitled: From Black Boxes to Glass Houses: Evolving Expectations of Law Firm Transparency. The panelists included T.J. Duane of Lateral Link, Susan Robinson of Stanford Law, Charlotte Wager of Jenner & Block, and Irena McGrath of Hogan Lovells. With a lively discussion between the panelists and the attendees--which included professionals from law firm recruiting departments, law school career services offices, and members of the press like Above the Law’s David Lat and yours truly—the session provided interesting perspectives on the pros and cons of transparency (for a thorough recap of the session, check out David Lat’s post, linked below).

While the panel discussed everything from practicality of transparency to law firm surveys to law firm reputation, the most striking dialogue of the session to me was the impact of external communication on transparency. Wager pointed out early in the session that nowadays with the Internet, and specifically Lat’s blog Above the Law, transparency isn’t merely about disclosing information to associates, but also managing what happens with that information once it’s in the public.

Others in the room echoed Wager’s point, specifically raising concerns about how blog comments can particularly skew firm information in such a way that it dissuades firm communication. But with a rising demand for transparency from associates, firms can’t just turn their backs on the issue. As Duane noted, prospective employees are consumers, and consumers place value on certain factors—if transparency is one of these factors, then it becomes important. Even law students are factoring in transparency, although “as an abstract ideal,” said Robinson.

What does this mean for law firms who are struggling with the publicity from the Internet and influential blogs like Above the Law? Perhaps firms shouldn’t consider whether to share information but rather how they are sharing the information. According to McGrath, “firms have been challenged to go beyond that initial email communication.” Building on this idea, Wager noted that firms need to “follow up on a more personal level” and explain the “wisdom of the decision” In other words, “[t]he proper response to greater transparency is not to communicate less, but to communicate better, using all of the different channels available to you,” says Lat.

I agree and think that better communication is crucial in addressing associates’ transparency concerns. It isn’t enough to merely throw a ton of information at the associates. Going a step further to provide associates with deeper understandings of the firm’s thought processes and to answer any questions may not only improve morale through inclusion but may also address the firm’s concerns about backlash from comments on blogs. If associates have a thorough understanding, they may not have to turn to comment sections to hash things out.

Providing associates with a clearer view of firm decision-making is critical for prospective employees too. “Aspirationally, what I would love for transparency to mean is that information is fair and balanced,” allowing prospective employees to get the “whole story” on the firm, not just gossip, said McGrath. Indeed, law students and laterals “have to understand the whole doctrine” when researching firms, said Wager. I couldn’t agree more, and proper communication within gives the firms opportunities to round out their stories on the outside. Sure, firms can’t share every management discussion with associates, but for those they do, they can better shape their execution to promote deeper understanding.

Above the Law Source

Read More:
I'm Gonna Write About You! Legal Blogs & Transparency

Filed Under: Law

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