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A brilliant career?

A brilliant career?

What does it mean to be a lawyer in Australia in 2010? Is the profession achieving all it can? Nick James writes

What does it mean to be a lawyer in Australia in 2010? Nick James writes

At the centre of a meaningful human life there exists a set of aspirational ideals and values. Our capacity to embody and live up to at least some of these ideals and values is a crucial factor in determining our happiness. Nothing is more vital or satisfying than to live according to one's authentic values. No force has been more powerful in shaping the world, rightly or wrongly, than the pursuit of or conflict over values.

Sitting in an office as a lawyer in Australia in 2010, it can seem almost impossible to see the potential for connection with this dimension of human experience. We live in a time where, apparently, the great human struggles of ideas are behind us. Where we have reached a consensus that our energies are best applied simply towards working to get ahead, to paying our mortgage and struggling to afford a better life for our family. Indeed it can be so challenging and difficult to keep up with the demands of the marketplace that we can be fooled into thinking that, when we have done so successfully, we have achieved all there is to achieve.

That there is a cost to this mistake and that there is a latent desire for authentic purpose in our industry seems to follow from the evidence of widespread dissatisfaction and disengagement among lawyers, particularly in junior ranks. That this desire represents a business opportunity for law firms capable of tapping into and enabling an authentic sense of purpose seems beyond question. Such organisations would be, like the example of Google in the IT industry, potentially capable of harnessing and funnelling the energies of the best minds of their generation.

A sustainable society is a society grounded in the enduring well-being of its individual participants. Ultimately a sustainable law firm must be grounded in the same principle. To be genuinely supportive of the well-being of its participants, a law firm must ultimately connect its lawyers with a sense of purpose in their role as citizens in the outside world. That there is a genuine moral dimension to this challenge is undeniable.

Commercial lawyers in 2010 have a unique, historic opportunity to be useful to society not only by contributing to pro bono or public service work but by contributing to new forms of business. In particular, for example through their participation in two great and very immediate challenges:

1. The process of civilising our workplaces to make them more responsive to our overlooked human needs for balance, purpose and self-determination: And also ensuring that the resulting organisations supplant the previous models because they do a better job of attracting emerging talent and (in a law firm context) servicing clients. New law-firm models can, by demonstrating their success in a hitherto highly conservative industry, begin to lead the way and provide a thriving example to other businesses of the superior effectiveness of new ownership and management structures.

2. The process of nurturing and furthering the interests of other innovative businesses particularly businesses currently struggling to establish the new-energy and low-environmental-impact technologies that are badly needed in order to facilitate an urgent rational societal response to the information presented by the current climate change science. Lawyers have helped make the world safe for large, polluting corporations. Now they need to play an equally important role in paving the way for the next wave of innovative and low-carbon businesses. These new organisations will need their own (vocal) supporters and advisors who are genuinely culturally aligned with their missions.

The reason why these challenges are exciting is that they have the potential to be both personally rewarding and also highly profitable: A disruption of the idea that as a lawyer you need to choose between values and a sacrifice in income. Highlighted by examples like Google, Virgin, InterfaceFlor and Semco, emerging changes to our business culture show, that in the new world there are opportunities to merge values and profit in genuinely new and energising ways.

This is what it could mean to be a lawyer in 2010.

Nick James is a founder and Director of the Sydney-based law firm Optim Legal He is an alumnus of two top-tier firms and was an associate to Justice Michael Kirby at the High Court of Australia.

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