How Law Firms Should View Leniency After Lance Armstrong’s Interview With Oprah

“Legal work may not be as physically grueling as the Tour de France, but some days, mentally, it may feel like it,” the C4CM blog wrote last week.  The world of professional cycling create the ideal setting to explain how important frequent, active breaks in the workday can be for law firm professionals.
This week, professional cycling’s poster boy, Lance Armstrong, has provided another important lesson to law firms. This time, regarding mistakes, leniency, and redemption.

In law, leniency has a specific meaning. When courts practice leniency, it leads to a lesser punishment for your client after a conviction. This is good for business.

While in research, the concept of leniency—the forgiveness, compassion, or ability to turn a blind eye—gives academics cause for concern. When leniency is practiced too frequently or routinely, individuals begin to expect it.

This, economists would opine, leads to moral hazard, or tacit approval of a certain behavior or crimes as a result of inadequate punishment or consequence.

So within your law practice, how does management’s reaction to employee transgressions affect the moral hazard in your firm? Is there a benefit or drawback to leniency?

First, let’s look at Lance’s story.

This week was the first of what we can only imagine will be a string of attempts by Lance Armstrong to restore his image. On Monday, Armstrong taped an interview with Oprah Winfrey where he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.

Understandably, Lance Armstrong’s legal team was divided about a possible confession, expressing some concern about its potential effect on continuing litigation, reported the Wall Street Journal.

“In October, after Mr. Armstrong refused to engage in the USADA investigation process or challenge its findings, the agency stripped him of his Tour de France titles and gave him a lifetime ban,” continue the WSJ article.

In addition to being stripped of his title, Armstrong was dropped from his sponsors—including Nike—and even his own foundation changed it’s name from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to The Livestrong Foundation.

Although Armstrong is intent on reform (in fact, he told the WSJ before his Oprah Winfrey interview that he hoped “she hits me hard.”), he also seems intent on racing again.

So, what do you think, is he reformed? Is he sorry? Should he be able to race without repercussion?

More to the point, transgressions happen everyday in the business world. Whether or not employees think the illicit behavior is “normal” or whether or not they’re conscious of its criminality, employees cheat, steal, and lie.

On a lesser scale, transgressions happen in terms of miscommunications, missteps, or misspoken words on a bad day. How should law firm managers deal with these events?

There are a few options:

  1. Your firm can let individual managers deal with the repercussions on a case-by-case basis
  2. Your firm can formalize rules so that the punishment always fits the crime
  3. Your firm can lean toward a zero-tolerance approach
  4. Your firm can lean toward leniency

It’s likely that the majority of firms practice the first option—treating issues case-by-case. The problem with this method is inconsistency decreases your legitimacy as a manager and can even introduce litigation to your firm.

Unfortunately, rigid formal rules can often seem harsh when they’re unyielding. Similarly, zero-tolerance doesn’t necessarily breed a culture of understanding—a culture key to positive work ethics and loyalty. In the end, to err on leniency seems to not be an error at all.

Although many people believe Lance Armstrong should have been more harshly reprimanded and legally punished for doping, it would be to the detriment of professional athletes, as well as a charitable foundation.

Isn’t better the world knows the truth and moves forward? Certainly the sport, its members, and The Livestrong Foundation should think so.

And, your firm needs to decide what policies to make in the event employee missteps. How will you handle the situation? Before you decide, think about who you might hurt and who truly pays the price (like the firm’s financial bottom line) for one person’s penance.

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