Should you take a stand on social issues?

Like so many people, I was rocked by last week’s shootings at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC. (For those of you outside the US who may not have heard about the story, here’s an article that will fill you in.)

In 2012, I wrote a short article following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, urging lawyers to act in whatever way they felt appropriate to address the issues. Nearly three years later, we’re still facing these issues, and others (especially concerning racism and how law enforcement interacts with various groups of people) are boiling.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from the 2012 article:

There’s been much discussion about what we as a society should do in terms of gun control, making treatment more available for the mentally ill, and protecting our children. This newsletter isn’t the forum for me to promote the solutions that seem most appropriate to me. The bottom line for me is, as expressed by Nelson Mandela, “We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear.”

As lawyers, we are in a unique position. We are not “more equal” in any Orwellian sense, but we are often de facto leaders in our communities. There’s been a great deal of discussion about whether this is the time for mourning or action, but I personally believe that the stakes are so high that the two should not be separated.

Please, use your leadership and your voice to advance the solutions that you think stand the best chance of creating the life our children deserve. I will be doing the same in my community. And whether we agree or disagree about the “how” of building a safer society, I believe that the free and open dialogue joined with action will advance that goal.

I received a number of responses to that newsletter, most questioning whether and how to take a stand without alienating clients and potential clients. It’s a fair question, especially when addressing hot-button issues like how to address racism, whether to institute some additional forms of gun control, or access to mental health treatments. And the truth is that if you take a stand, there’s a chance that someone will be offended. That’s true for less-pressing issues as well, though: do you support the “right” community activities? Will someone be offended if you do (or don’t) sponsor some organization?

Taking a stand may cost some business, and it may also attract some other business. The bigger question is the cost of not saying or doing something that’s in deep alignment with one’s values.

Whether it’s in the context of recent events or more day-to-day affairs, think about these factors as you consider taking a public stand:

  • How likely is it that your stand will alienate a class of [potential] clients? If you’re considering taking a public position in favor of gun control, for example, and you represent gun manufacturers, it’s a safe bet that your clients and potential clients will be affected and probably displeased.
  • How important is this position to me? If you choose to take sides on a hot social issue, make sure that the issue really matters to you. Otherwise, you’ll likely find that any cost outweighs the benefit. But don’t take a position just to get business—it may appear disingenuous and if so, it’ll backfire.
  • How likely is it that your stand will attract a class of potential clients? Your answer here should not determine whether you decide to take action, but it may provide some comfort. If you can’t answer this question, look at the psychographics of your ideal client. Just as some investors choose socially conscious investments, some clients may be attracted to a lawyer who views the world as they do.
  • How publicly should you act? Your options range from taking a very public role to donating money anonymously. Choose an action and a forum that matches your level of commitment and your assessment of business risk.

I’ll close with the same call I made in 2012: Please, use your leadership and your voice to advance the solutions that you think stand the best chance of creating the society we deserve. 

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