A Law Firm’s Code of Conduct: McDermott Will & Emery LLP Case Study

“Law firms are “organizations” just like others who are subject to the Sentencing Guidelines standards for compliance programs.  They have the same types of compliance and ethics risks that other organizations have.  They should be doing risk assessments, designating compliance and ethics officers,  and adopting diligent compliance and ethics programs.  And certainly firms should have programs if they are going to advise clients that they should have them.” – Joseph Murphy, Senior Advisor Compliance Strategists
rosenberg-sallyBy Sally A. Rosenberg
From the March/April 2015 issue of ethikos

In the corporate context, codes of conduct are commonplace. Law firms largely have not followed suit because lawyers are subject to codes of professional responsibility and ethics. So why did McDermott Will & Emery LLP (“McDermott”), an international law firm with more than 1,110 lawyers, launch its own Code of Conduct (“Code”) last year?

“We wrote a Code because we are committed to aiming higher than rules of ethics and professional responsibility,” explains McDermott Co-Chair, Jeff Stone. “We wanted to underscore our commitment to fostering a culture that openly and fully embraces ethics and absolute integrity at all times.”

As Peter Sacripanti, Firm Co-Chair, reflects: “The most respected organizations all have an ethos that guides their behavior. The Code serves as a reminder to us each and every day about our Firm values and culture.”

McDermott’s Code of Conduct draws on lessons learned through our participation in the 2013 SCCE annual conference and the guidance of McDermott attorneys whose practice areas focus on corporate compliance. Recognizing the need to create a “living document” that would set forth McDermott’s guiding principles in an approachable way, our General Counsel’s office collaborated with the marketing department to draft a Code that would resonate with all of the firm personnel.

We began by reviewing the codes of other professional services firms and corporations, as well as best practices made available by organizations such as SCCE and the Ethics Resource Center. We then developed a Firm-wide survey that provided valuable substantive input from all ranks and from all offices, and played an important role in achieving buy-in by communicating that everyone had a valued voice in the end product. Finally, we produced many drafts for comment from Firm leadership around the world to ensure that the Code embraced and reflected their input and the mores of our various offices.

In development, realizing that we referenced the Code as a reflection of what we are made of, we entitled the Code, “The Fabric of our Firm.” The fabric metaphor lent itself to incorporating images of warmly colored and textured fabric swatches on the cover and throughout the Code’s pages. We liked the dimension and depth these images conveyed, especially when coupled with our marketing team’s idea to depict a spool of thread running throughout the document, thus visually reinforcing how each of us is an essential fiber in our Firm’s fabric. We also use the Code’s fabric image as wallpaper on the lock-screen on all Firm computers, and periodically rotate crisp quotes from the Code in that spot to remind our people every day about our core principles.

At its heart, the Code describes the role each of our employees play as stewards, ambassadors, and professionals of the Firm. We articulate in the document what it means to play each of these roles on a daily basis. Other sections describe how our Firm’s founders’ driving principles of integrity and moral, ethical, and legal soundness have been constants since our founding amid the Great Depression (“A Vision Woven into our History”), and express our core values of excellence, integrity, diversity, teamwork and support, and citizenship. The final pages, inspired by a similar component of the PwC’s Code, include a framework for ethical decision-making that outlines how our people can safely and productively raise any concerns about conduct at the firm.

To roll out the Code, we created a video in which lawyers and staff from various offices share what it means to them to be stewards, ambassadors, and professionals of the Firm. Attorneys and staff gathered in every one of our 18 offices to view this video last spring, and we posted the Code and video to our website and internal portal. All new hires are given a copy of the Code and are shown the video on the first day of their orientation. We frequently remind our people about the central importance, and availability, of these resources. We also incorporate references to acting as “stewards, ambassadors and professionals” in our everyday parlance. “Thank you for being a good steward of the Firm,” is now a common missive.

To supplement the Code, McDermott has rolled out a third-party operated Concernline and launched an Integrity and Compliance Committee, comprised of junior partners, associates, and staff, both of which offer avenues to raise concerns that do not require coming forward toFirm leadership, an action that some may find intimidating.

“Adopting a Code has fulfilled one of my key objectives,” says Alan Rutkoff, McDermott’s General Counsel. “It is a powerful tool to have an unambiguous statement of a common theme that encourages each of us to take ownership of our responsibility to be stewards, ambassadors, and professionals of McDermott. The Code really is at the core of creating a culture of excellence, and is something that has proven to be very helpful in my efforts to protect the Firm.”

McDermott’s Code can be viewed at here and the Code Video here.

[bctt tweet=”@Je5730 Law firms are “organizations” just like others who are subject to the Sentencing Guidelines standards for #compliance programs.” via=”no”]

Sally A. Rosenberg is Deputy General Counsel with McDermott Will & Emery, a premier international law firm with a diversified business practice. Numbering more than 1,100 lawyers, we have offices in Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Milan, Munich, New York, Orange County, Paris, Rome, Seoul, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. Further extending our reach into Asia, we have a strategic alliance with MWE China Law Offices in Shanghai.


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