Hofstra Law Review


This article suggests that a law firm that desiring to promote ethical behavior by its lawyers needs to complement efforts to establish an “ethical infrastructure” and an “ethical culture” with attention to its broader organizational culture. Specifically, research indicates that the perception that an organization treats its members fairly–their sense of organizational justice--is an important factor in prompting members’ ethical behavior.

Many law firms in the last two or three decades have devoted attention to establishing what has been called an “ethical infrastructure” that reflects appreciation of the importance of organizational policies and procedures in encouraging ethical behavior. Such measures are salutary efforts to move beyond relying simply on individual character to ensure that law firm lawyers behave ethically. Research indicates, however, that policies and procedures will have little effect if members of an organization do not believe that they reflect ethical values to which organizational leaders genuinely subscribe. This has led to efforts in recent years to promote an “ethical culture” in firms that stresses the firm’s genuine commitment to the values underlying the professional responsibilities of lawyers in the firm. Modeling ethical behavior, penalizing those who violate ethical duties notwithstanding the revenues they generate, and openly discussing the relevance of professional values in various settings are some of the ways that this can done. This can be important in communicating that policies and procedures are not simply formalities with little substantive significance.

When members of an organization think of ethics, however, they tend first to focus on how fairly they believe the organization treats people who work there. Research indicates that there is a strong connection between the perception of organizational justice and ethical attitudes and behavior. In the law firm setting, this directs attention to features not necessarily regarded as having salience with respect to professional responsibility, such as a firm’s compensation system, its support for members dealing with medical or family issues, and whether people who exhibit cooperative or competitive behavior are more likely to advance. The article suggests that ethical infrastructure and ethical culture can be seen as nested with a broader organizational culture. They each can provide distinct and complementary ways of promoting ethical outcomes, and also offer different angles of vision for research on behavior in law firms.