The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already terrible inequality we have in the United States. Prior to the outbreak, income inequality was the highest it had been in fifty years. Now, with more than 30 million people unemployed, it’s likely to get even higher for the foreseeable future.
This inequality is not only an economic problem, but it’s also a legal one. The bigger the disparity in resources, the more the wealthy will be able to consolidate power. The more power they have, the more they are able to influence the law to work in their favor. And the more the law works in their favor, the greater inequality becomes. I consider myself an optimist, but I worry that if we don’t do something major to stop this trend soon, we will end up living in a feudal society.
Lawyers will have a huge role in determining how this plays out.
On a micro-scale, the rich are better able to afford legal services, which means they have an advantage in negotiating contracts, handling lawsuits, or exploiting the law to work in their favor. As someone who has been party to a handful of lawsuits over the course of my career, I know exactly how much value a good lawyer can provide. And while the other parties in these situations usually had more resources than me, I know that, as a successful business owner, I have an advantage over most other people who find themselves in these situations.
At the most sophisticated levels, we see wealthy individuals and corporations donating money to influence elections, appointments, and our education system so that those in charge of setting law and policy will do so in a way that favors their personal interests. This imbalance has been playing out for decades but is likely to get worse if we don’t intervene.
What you can do to reverse inequality
As lawyers, you have the power to help reverse this course. Here’s how.
Educate the public
As lawyers, you understand the gravity of your role in interpreting the law. And your beliefs about how the law is supposed to work will naturally influence this interpretation. People naturally want to work with lawyers who interpret the law in a way that favors their interests. And since the wealthy have inherently more access to legal services, we end up with a legal–and by extension an economic and justice–system that heavily favors them.
Over time, people can begin to misconstrue these interpretations as truths so that those who are less educated in the law will assume that the way things are is the way they’re supposed to be. For example, the law in Washington State does not explicitly say that a corporation must act in the best interest of shareholders, but many people assume that is the case. As such we have a society in which business leaders are taught this is the only right way to do business and have created a system in which those who choose to do business otherwise are at a disadvantage.
The best way to combat this is through education. What do people tend to misunderstand about your practice area? What is fact and what is opinion? What does the law actually state and how does that differ from how people discuss it? Education creates empowerment, and only when everyone is empowered can we create a truly just society.
Strive for sustainability, not profitability
As mentioned above, we as a society have been led to believe that a business’s number one priority is to make as much money as possible. But if you’re not legally required to do so, what is the purpose of maximizing profit? Of course, a business needs to make money in order to survive, and the more money it makes, the more it can invest back into providing the products, services, and innovations that help consumers.
But at a certain point, a business simply doesn’t need to make any more money in order to fulfill its function. And the more it focuses on making money at all costs, the more it neglects other considerations. How often do executives choose to harm customers, employees, communities, or the environment in the name of profit?
It’s no secret that the law can be an extremely lucrative profession. But in order to maximize your profits, you have to ally yourselves with those who have the most money. Of course, in certain cases, this may be the right thing to do (the wealthy are not inherently less worth defending than the poor), but when you make decisions based on money, you will inevitably be forced to make decisions that make our society less equal and more unjust.
When considering which clients to take on, ask yourself why you’re doing so. And when thinking about finances, consider only what you need to be sustainable instead of what you need to be the most well off.
Remove harmful incentives
Money is a powerful motivator, but it often motivates people to make the wrong decisions. Several years ago, we decided to stop paying commissions to our sales team. We knew that if someone was worried about how they were going to pay their mortgage, they would not be incentivized to make the best decision for our clients, which would ultimately hurt everyone involved. When considering pay or other incentive structures at your firm, ask yourself how they affect people’s decision making. Are people being rewarded for making decisions in line with your firm’s values, or are they doing so in order to make the most profit?
Go against the grain
The only way to prove there’s a better way of doing something is to prove it. In 2015, when I decided to raise the minimum wage at my company to $70,000 a year, people told me it wasn’t possible. But I believed that our business would be better off if we paid our employees a living wage than it would if we simply paid them market rates. A lot of people talk about raising the minimum wage or the problem of inequality, but few people actually take steps to do something to fix it. What problems do you wish you could fix in society? How can you take a small step in doing so through your own work?
What about your clients? What do they value and how do they want to run their business? What would be the legal ramifications of doing so? Often, the main reason people don’t act is because of fear. But knowing that they are legally protected and/or understanding the legal ramifications of a policy or program they want to enact might be enough to convince them something is worth trying.
People like to joke about lawyers, but good lawyers are essential to creating a just and prosperous society for all. There are countless ways you can use your knowledge and influence to make the world a better place. How you do so is up to you.
Dan Price is CEO of Gravity Payments. He is best known for implementing a $70k minimum salary for everyone at the company and other unorthodox business practices. Through the Gravity Legal payments platform, Dan and Gravity help law firms reduce the cost and administrative burden of accepting client payments and trust deposits.