Innovating Business Ethics: The UK Law Values Report - Elevating Character Alongside Competence

21 June 2023

Tags: Ethical Values

In the latest Innovating Business Ethics blog, the Oxford Character Project focus on the values in the UK law sector.

At the Oxford Character Project, we conducted a UK Business Values survey, analysing the externally stated values of 221 leading UK companies, 42 of which were in the law sector. Our UK Values Report provides insight into what UK businesses value most. In the law sector, collaboration is the number one value, followed by respect. We shared our insights and listened to leaders in the law sector at a recent symposium, which focused on the need to elevate character alongside competence in leadership.

UK Law Values Survey  

In February, law leaders met to explore how their leadership can make a positive impact in society. This followed an earlier meeting of finance leaders who discussed the real difference that character-based leadership can make in fulfilling their social license as they turn to values to inform how their purpose is practiced. Industry leaders in UK law are also re-examining their social corporate purpose and their role in enabling organisations to deliver on their purpose. Leaders in law are highly articulate and intelligent people and play a significant role as they advise the world’s top financial institutions. At the Oxford Character Project, we conducted a UK Business Values survey with 221 companies, 42 of which were in the law sector. And more recently, we hosted a symposium where we were able to present our research and listen to the practices and experiences of leaders from a number of leaders in the law sector. The most prevalent theme from our full-day discussion was the need to elevate character alongside competence in law.

Our UK Business Values Survey examined the language on websites and annual reports from 221 UK companies, including 42 from the law sector, in an attempt to identify their values, understand how they define and select their values, and how they put them into practice. The report provides insight into what UK businesses value most and compares the findings across the finance, law, and tech sectors. We previously focused on the full report and finance sector, and now shift our focus to the law sector with the tech sector forthcoming.

Our findings revealed that collaboration was the number one value in law, followed by a unique second compared to the other sectors – respect. Similar to the overarching industry survey and finance sector results, there are a number of values emphasised by researchers that are rarely mentioned by those in the law sector, including authenticity, curiosity, gratitude, and humility. Our research also shows that those in the law sector view leadership differently compared to the other sectors based on prioritizing more competency-based values compared to character-related characteristics. For example, those in the law sector predominantly viewed experience, expertise, intelligent, knowledgeable, professional, solves problems, and technical competence as integral to good leadership, compared to finance being inclusive and risk aware, whereas the tech sector (forthcoming) values being curious and a visionary.

The pitfalls of competency driven leadership

Leaders in the law sector shared that leadership promotion criteria are closely aligned to technical competencies and that they place priority on their judgment. What we see law firms fall prey to is underestimating the character-related muscles that arise from habitual behaviours anchored in virtues (e.g., humility, integrity, courage, transcendence, temperance) that have to be in place to support good judgment. Law firms tend to over-emphasize the cognitive virtues in judgment, such as being analytical, cognitively complex, and a critical thinker, that neglects how a more complex set of virtues is needed to better support judgment, competence, and performance. For example, a lawyer who has not cultivated empathy will be unable to fully understand and meet the needs of their client. Over-weighting these judgment-related cognitive virtues can also cause them to manifest as excess vices when unsupported by other virtues. For example, being a critical thinker can manifest as destructive or unnecessary criticism when unsupported by empathy. The implication isn’t to weaken a strong virtue, like critical thinking, but instead to strengthen weaker virtues, like empathy, to better support strong virtues. You can review a comprehensive list of character virtues and vices here.

Limiting the cultivation of judgment to intellect and cognition, rather than relying on a broader set of virtues, can also contribute to chronic wellbeing issues. Character research has long established how character enables and elevates flourishing – performance, wellbeing, and connectedness to others and shows that performance and wellbeing reinforce each other rather than needing to be at odds with each other. According to Deborah Rhode, an American jurist and professor of law at Stanford, lawyers have among the highest rates of stress-related dysfunctions of any occupation with leaders being particularly susceptible given the pace and pressures of their work (2019). The over-weighting of cognitive skills and under-weighting of other virtues perpetuates this issue because it fails to equip individuals with the capacity to take care of themselves, which is also needed to support sustainable excellence. For example, a lawyer who has not cultivated strong humility and integrity is likely unable to know where their personal and professional boundaries are and fail to abide by them, leading them to burnout and ultimately compromising effort, communication, and sustainable excellence. Most leaders in law have likely experienced, or will experience, some sort of stress and wellbeing issues and should therefore feel a sense of responsibility to change the practices in law that reinforce these outcomes. A focus on elevating character alongside competence can rectify these issues and elevate excellence at the same time.

Strengthening character alongside competence

Our research and the discussions in our recent law symposium are not dissimilar to other major research projects in other parts of the world. In 2016, researchers surveyed more than 24,000 lawyers in all 50 US states and found that 76% of character-related characteristics were identified by a majority of respondents as necessary right out of law school – they referred to this as The Character Quotient needed to support successful lawyers (Gerety & Keyes, 2016). There is a gap between what law firms know to be important – character, compared to how they currently see leadership represented in law firms – competencies.

Judgment is not as good as it could be because of underestimating the character-related muscles that have to be in place to support it. Good judgment isn’t just about ethics, but it elevates sustained excellence and wellbeing through a robust set of virtues that inform the practice of judgment and decision-making. Kenneth Townsend, the director of leadership and character for the professional schools at Wake Forest University, reminds us of why lawyers may be inclined to think about their behaviour more ethically rather than aspirational (2021). He illustrates how exercising good judgment has decreased as lawyer regulation has increased, represented through the trending growth of rules and content of codes. For example, he notes that the American Bar Association’s 1983 Model Rules, which regulates lawyers, dropped the aspirational standards, shifting focus from what a good lawyer could be towards defining the bad lawyer. Character isn’t a “nice to have” thing but instead is essential to good judgment and aspirational performance and wellbeing. Researchers Sturm, Vera, and Crossan illustrate how competence and character are entangled (2017). They position competence as the ability to do something while character arises from habitual behaviours anchored in virtues that influence not only how competence is exercised, but whether it is exercised at all. An important step to understanding character competence entanglement is to see it in action. Mary Crossan, a leading character-based leadership researcher, and Larry Crossan, a corporate lawyer, draw inspiration from Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a phenomenal example of someone who has cultivated strong character, alongside competence, to support a practice of optimal judgment to navigate the complexities of law (2020). The authors offer that Ruth’s “notorious” nickname shouldn’t be the case for law, but that her practice of strong character alongside competence should be commonplace in law firms.

What leaders can do

We provide a set of recommendations to help leaders cultivate character, alongside competence, to elevate judgment, performance, and wellbeing. Leadership in law is often misunderstood. Character-based leadership emphasizes the disposition to lead, meaning that one need not supervise anyone to be a leader – perhaps in law this could be viewed as thought leadership. For example, when guiding  organisations as a trusted advisor, there is a definite leadership role to be played. Partners in law firms are also considered to be leaders although the particular role of the managing partner is often seen as the most formal leadership role. We encourage those in law to seek a dispositional leadership approach so that they focus on bringing the best of themselves to any situation and through this approach can influence others to bring the best of themselves too. Your character models to others what you value and motivates others to cultivate the character behaviours you have cultivated. We recommend for leaders to focus on developing your own character. Consider which character virtues you may need to strengthen to cultivate a habitual practice of optimized judgment. You can review a comprehensive list of virtues and vices here, that can be used to inform areas for development.

The fast-paced nature and billable hours of legal work means time is one of the most valuable resources to those in law and the view that time is scarce has contributed to the neglect of leadership development in law. However, we see that embedding character can transform valuable time. Each moment of time has the potential to extract better character-based judgment that enables both sustained excellence and well-being. Strengthening character enables individuals to engage their time more meaningfully and effectively. For example, a lawyer who has not cultivated empathy to understand their client needs may waste several hours developing proposals that go in the wrong direction. Whereas a lawyer who has practiced activating their empathy in their everyday practices is unlikely to make this mistake saving them several hours of revisions. Or a lawyer who lacks humility and collaboration may not be forthcoming with issues that should be addressed sooner rather than later to elevate performance and manage time effectively.

Our broader set of research examines character and leadership in both education and in industry. We see the relationship between the two and that elevating character-based development in law will require a commitment both from practicing lawyers and law schools to align objectives. Only 23% of law practitioners believe new lawyers have sufficient skills to practice – the researchers who conducted this research urge academic institutions to consider developing “the whole lawyer” that goes beyond legal skills and intelligence to also include a broader blend of skills, including character (Gerety & Keyes, 2016). When law firms fail to hire on the character-based requirements and focus solely on professional competencies, they perpetuate the wrong incentives for law schools that are misaligned with the objectives law firms want to shift. Strong character, or lack thereof, appears in everyday culture. You can review this character culture table to assess how character is and isn’t showing up in your firm. Law firms can align HR initiatives to reinforce their value of character, such as recruiting, selecting, and onboarding based on character. This sends a message to law schools that character must be embedded into the curriculum to support the success of law students post-graduation. And law schools can prioritize character-based curriculum providing graduate candidates with strong character that will challenge the status quo of firms who don’t have strong character-based cultures. In one of our previous blog posts, we also included a list of examples of how to embed character into your HR initiatives, which you can find here.

Coming up next 

Our UK Business Values Survey focused on three major sectors including Finance, Law, and Tech. We have examined each area’s stated external values, along with a large-scale study of perspectives from people working in each sector. In this post, we shared insights from the Law sector and have previously shared insights from the full UK Business Values Report and the Finance sector. As results become available, we will share insights from Tech.


Oxford Character Project
Oxford Character Project

Written by Corey CrossanLily Elsner, and Anjali Sarker from the Oxford Character Project – where we focus on the human dynamics of leadership and the qualities of character that enable leaders to build trust, think with clarity, embrace diversity, empower others, and persevere through difficult times.