Giving back: law with a purpose
Lindsay Healy challenges other firms to copy the Aria Grace Law model based on wealth-share, equality and diversity
The principle behind the Aria Grace Law model is simple: business has to have a purpose beyond profit.
Put that in the context of a world where the gap between rich and poor is continually expanding; where ordinary jobs do not even cover a living wage whereas billionaires could easily solve world poverty. Where traditional models of capitalism and socialism have failed society; where gender pay gaps are growing; where global corporations fail to pay their share of taxes and rip out cash bloodlines to offshore banks for their shareholders.
And where the banks have failed businesses and trusted institutions like the Post Office have persecuted (leading to the imprisonment of hundreds) of innocent people, in the name of protecting its brand; and where partners in City law firms pay themselves millions.
This is not the trickle-down economy – it is the trickle up, where the many are paying for the few, like an elite global financial Ponzi scheme.
With the weight of all that, what is the point of being a corporate law firm with a purpose? The answer is, partially, because at Aria Grace Law we have found that when you drive ethics into your business, you get better, happier clients and lawyers. You can also be highly profitable which, in our case, we choose to give back to society through charities.
The other reason is that no other law firm in the world does what we do. And if we can do it, then anyone can do it; and that is a great start.
What is the Aria Grace Law model?
It provides great lawyers and services and does away with expensive overheads, passing on all those cost savings so that clients get great value. Some firms do this already which is superb. Our lawyers get paid 90 per cent of fees; and true flexibility, diversity and inclusiveness is in our DNA.
We plant a tree after every deal, give all profits to charity and deliver a model of fairness for future generations. Clients, lawyers and society are one ecosystem – everyone doing very well, sharing the wealth. Simple. The question is therefore: why are more firms not doing this?
When I set up Aria Grace Law two years ago, I wanted to create a great corporate law firm that I would want to join. Many of my friends and peers asked why on earth I chose the model of equal pay for everyone – and mostly, why that model included me.
“You are taking the risk”, they said. “You should take at least 40 per cent.” But that is what everyone else does. The uniqueness of Aria Grace Law is that it is unlike any other business model: it is transparent, it is wealth-share and it’s the same for everyone, including me as the founder. For it to work, someone had to take the initial risk.
When setting up the firm, I looked at the traditional model. Few organisations do hierarchy like law firms, concentrating the lion’s share of pay and power at the top, derived from the workers at the bottom. It is taken as a given that all lawyers aspire to become equity partners, in a brutal world of ‘up or out’ which pays lip service to any wider social responsibility.
Once you’ve hit the age of 55, you have to make way for the next generation. It is designed to be elitist, for the benefit of the very few.
The traditional model does not recognise the structural inhibitions to performance or success, such as having a family to look after or not having the connections or confidence of a privileged background. Even today, the gender pay gap is, unbelievably, actually widening in the biggest firms while health and wellbeing among lawyers is at an all-time low.
I then looked at other firms with dispersed models similar to Aria Grace Law and I saw that the executive was taking 25 per cent and more – in many cases, much more of the fees. In return, the lawyers get very little and people accepted it because there was nowhere else to go. Meanwhile the chief executive officer takes millions yearly or they have put the firm through an initial public offering (IPO) and monetized it.
To take such a huge amount of someone else’s money is, in my view, simply wrong. It also antagonises and angers those who are giving their money away; and that kills off any possibility for full scale collegiate, collaborative working. These models are not sustainable in the 2020s.
So, the founding principle of Aria Grace Law is that nobody profits from anyone else’s work and we spread wealth equally. We can all then derive downstream benefits using the model, from obvious ones such as everyone being able to earn more without having to actually do more; and we could then give our profit to good causes. Everyone gains.
Initially, I had mothers returning to work in mind (60 per cent of our lawyers are currently women) but it became obvious that there are too many bad ‘isms’ in law – sexism, racism, ageism, elitism. So I decided to focus on getting senior, excellent lawyers – all partners coming from City firms – to establish the brand. Later we will create a pathway for junior lawyers; and ultimately from schools to our firm.
A business that delivers high value excellence for clients and diversity and equality for lawyers, while having a wider purpose, was a business I wanted to be part of and I thought others would too.
Since starting, we have grown organically from me and two clients (one of which was pro bono) to 40 partners coming from a host of leading City firms and companies and more than 300 clients. This is without any real advertising, marketing or backing money – just word of mouth and our clients recommending us to other clients.
We also now have lawyers in France, Germany, Spain, South Africa and Poland. They all work in various ways that suit them and which allows them to optimise their time. That serves our clients brilliantly. We have clients ranging from startups to large fintechs, as well as those in the financial services sector and FTSE-serving technology companies.
Of course, none of this would have been possible ten years ago and the Aria Grace Law Model has been helped even further by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Standards and Regulations which were introduced last November. This means our lawyers are individually regulated by the SRA rather than the firm itself.
Compliance is a heavy burden, so we don’t handle costly regulated areas such as probate, conveyancing and advocacy.
The firm is all about the way we treat our clients, lawyers and society. As of July 2020, all profits will go to charity in perpetuity, one of which is currently Great Ormond Street Hospital. I expect us to make charitable donations of at least £200,000 this year, a number which will keep rising as we grow. The maths and the message are unashamedly simple: More clients + more lawyers (x equality/wealth share) = more money to charity/wealth share.
Trees and gratitude
We lead by example. We plant a tree for every deal – 300 with the Woodland Trust so far this year alone – and we became the first law firm in the world to go through the circulytics assessment designed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; and regenerating natural systems. Companies including BASF, Ikea and Unilever helped to develop it – and Aria Grace Law scored an ‘A’.
Pro bono work is another piece of the whole. Led by partner Nick Gould, a team that includes Paul Marshall (a barrister at Cornerstone Barristers) is working with several sub-postmasters who are appealing their convictions in the Court of Appeal as a result of the Post Office scandal, which was recently documented on BBC’s Panorama programme and billed as the largest ever miscarriage of justice in modern Britain.
These are innocent people who have been dealt with badly by the justice system, prosecuted and in some cases imprisoned when the Post Office knew they were innocent. We are doing it pro bono because our clients have been through hell and have lost literally everything at the hands of the Post Office. It is simply the right thing to do.
We consistently practice gratitude in our day-to-day actions and we genuinely care about society as a whole, including the future generation of lawyers. We sponsored student legal body LittleLaw to help them to further develop their online platform where they unite, help and share useful information with their peers. We also want to show the future generation that there are ethical business models like ours.
In a post-covid-19 world, values are being dusted off and re-energised. We have seen how corporate greed has affected all of us and the future is about making the change happen, not by words but by action. Billionaires could solve world poverty by giving away most of their fortune and still be left with more than they could spend in a lifetime. They choose not to.
Law firms could instantly do away with unequal gender pay but they choose not to. Why?
I want other firms, and businesses in other sectors, to see that you can be successful and ethical and profitable and to embrace our model of equality and diversity and wealth share… and to copy it. For older and more established firms, this would mean changing the structure and that might seem ‘unfair’ on those just about to head into equity. Tough as it is we have shown it can be done.
When you share everything equally, you cannot compete with our model. You don’t need to: it serves lawyers, society and clients – the many, not the elite few. Surely that’s a good enough purpose.
Lindsay Healy is the founder of corporate law firm Aria Grace Law aria-grace.com