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A narrow legal view or a more enlightened ethical view by in-house lawyers

By co-author Linda DiSantis,

In his book, Profit with Honor, Daniel Yankelovich argues that corporations must be on the forefront of addressing key issues – including the need for sustainable development, climate change, and energy independence. He argues that the assumption that government or educational and religious institutions can and will address these issues alone is unrealistic. He makes a compelling case for what he labels “stewardship ethics” and how it will be the next stage of market capitalism.

He also argues that companies cannot simply rely on the “law” as the means to achieve this goal. He calls the law a “blunt instrument” and states that if you want results you need to give people a basis for trust and inspire them with an ethical vision.

What is the role of in-house counsel in the development and implementation of such a vision? You need to ask yourself as the company’s lawyer, do you provide guidance that leads the company to think in narrow terms of “legal compliance” or do you assist the company’s management in envisioning a broader, ethical approach? For example, if you were asked to advise your organization on how to deal with possible sweat shop conditions by your suppliers, do you approach it from with a lawyer’s view that we must focus on how to comply with the law of the country in which our suppliers operate, or do you take the opportunity to argue for a more inspired view that takes into account the living conditions of the workers and how your organization can help improve those conditions?

You can argue that your role is “only to be the lawyer” because all you are required to do is ensure your client has the right advice on complying with the “law.” Or you can view your role more broadly to encompass what it takes for a company (your client) to become and remain a compliant and ethical company and promote the view that without some inspiration, you are likely to be dealing with same legal compliance issues over and over. If your employees are not be led by an inspired vision of the role of corporations in addressing the needs of society in our increasingly complex (and smaller and flatter) world, it is likely that your company will be dealing with the “blunt instrument” of the law repeatedly.