What impact can business have on society?
That’s a complex issue in normal times.
And these are not normal times. The world is on fire.
PIVOT PODCAST WITH JEFFREY SONNENFELD AS GUEST
So the most riveting part of a PIVOT podcast last March with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway was how guest Jeffrey Sonnenfeld broke out of the usual parameters for discussion. Sonnenfeld is a professor and Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies at Yale School of Management.
Of course, given the human tragedy in the Ukraine, Sonnenfeld used that as the lens for assessing the behavior of business. He noted the dangers of spin. That is, what corporations and professional services firms were saying about what they were doing to move the dial on social justice in that war.
Then Sonnenfeld shifted to the more general understanding of social justice and the role of business. Essentially, this is about the business’ leveraging its power to reimagine the distribution of wealth, opportunity, and dignity. On the front lines he identified:
Kenneth Frazier – Executive Chairman of Merck’s Board of Directors
Robert Iger – Former Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company and Current Board Member of Genies
Brad Karp – Chairperson of Paul Weiss Law Firm.
LAW FIRM REDEFINES WHAT BUSINESS IT IS IN
What some might find interesting in Sonnenfeld’s list is that a law firm is included in the force field of power focused on reform. And, that could be the story in how social justice can actually become a reality. Sonnenfeld calls Karp a “quiet agent for change.” His approach could become a model.
Some posit that, next to media, the large law firm such as that chaired by Karp is the most powerful institution in the world. It has wealth, genius intellligence, gold-plated networks, and the ability to shape the law.
Karp, since he became chairperson in 2008, has been an advocate for the oppressed. And he has done that in a transformational way. For example, he has been an early adopter in pushing the boundaries of the business of the law firm beyond practicing law per se.
Consequently, the pursuit of social justice has become embedded in the firm’s operations, culture, and use of resources.
That, of course, takes the form of pro-bono outreach. Recently a Paul Weiss legal team won a North Carolina votings rights case.
In addition, there are innovative ventures to solve in real-time social problems. Paul Weiss’ signature effort had been, during COVID, mobilizing thousands of lawyers in law firms in America to create a free digital go-to for victims of the pandemic.
Also, there is the direct financial outreach. To assist Ukraine refugees Paul Weiss provided actual donations and facilitated donations by lawyers and staff.
DOING WELL BY DOING GOOD
It could have been Karp’s deep expertise in social justice which helped him envision and then implement the first-ever in the law-firm sector ESG (Environmental Social Governance) practice. Paul Weiss, with its finger on society’s changes, recognized that corporations would need guidance in how to sort out and respond to the ESG values upheaval.
Karp structured the practice this way:
“Business leaders face greater pressure to increase their organizations’ resilience while simultaneously addressing social issues of importance to stakeholders. Our advisory practice helps companies navigate the legal, business and political ramifications of developing and implementing ESG initiatives. We advise on matters such as stakeholder engagement, corporate governance, crisis management, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, ethics and compliance.”
WORLD ON FIRE AS OPPORTUNITY FOR DISRUPTING PROFIT-MAXIMIZING BUSINESS MODELS
In his iconoclastic manner Sonnenfeld also noted that other kinds of professional firms, such as some of those in management consulting, had a peculiar experience since the war began. Their employees told them that they should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to conduct business with Russia. A sign of disruptive times in business, those firms frequently caved.
A world on fire is forcing business to review its assumptions about how it impacts society.
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