20 Sep 2006

Doing Well by Doing Good

By Andrew West
Andrew West argues that the Australian upper middle class can be divided into two types of people: culturalists - those who look to balance a successful career with a clear conscience; and materialists - those motivated purely by material gain. Both are making a lot of money

It is a morning in late January, and a group of lawyers are gathered in the conference room of Gilbert + Tobin, a medium-sized firm headquartered in Sydney. In front of each is a thick file detailing some of the 72 new cases the firm has agreed to take on pro bono. The cases cover refugee applicants, the homeless, domestic violence victims and community arts groups. Last year, the firm opened another 200 new files, bringing its total number of pro bono clients to 700.

If Gilbert + Tobin charged for the 7180 hours of work it donated in 2004 “05, it would have reaped another $2.5 million. 'I get more stimulation, more satisfaction from doing pro bono cases than working on contracts for big companies,' says Elise Ball, a 27-year-old lawyer with the firm. 'I don't think you can have an effective justice system if, to access that system, you have to be in a position to pay high legal fees. But I realise that I am in a privileged position to have this opportunity to do this work on a corporate salary.'

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As well as searching for work that encourages personal growth and individuality, 'culturists' like Elise Ball look to balance a successful career with a clear conscience. A lawyer friend tells me one of the reasons Gilbert + Tobin has been able to attract top law students is because of its huge pro bono case load, something that appeals to idealistic lawyers. Elise, for example, attended a selective girls' school, scored in the top 1 per cent of the State in her HSC and, after graduating from the University of NSW, worked in Brussels on European competition law.

The firm acts for, among many others, Médecins Sans Frontières, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, the Australian Council of Social Service and the Environmental Defender's Office, as well as many penniless individuals. Every week, it dispatches young lawyers to the local court to help women who have no legal representation and who are trying to win restraining orders against violent partners.

It was a reputation immediately attractive to Elise. 'I was always interested in the social justice aspects of law,' she tells me. Elise, whose husband works in banking and finance law, leans towards the political Left, clearly evident in her anger at the Federal Government's attacks on human rights and the breakdown of ethics, honesty and accountability in government. Her job is, in part, a statement of her personal values. 'There's a high demand for positions like mine' ¾ well paid but also conscionable ¾ 'because this job does not have the same billing pressures of a commercial practice.'

But as any lawyer will tell you, full-time pro bono work, which takes you out of a particular field of legal expertise, is not going to help you make partner.

A major law firm may pay well, especially at partnership, but its rewards are modest compared with the corporate sector. So where does one find work that both soothes the conscience and fattens the bank balance?

I am sitting with Sam Mostyn in the offices of the Insurance Australia Group (IAG), where she heads the division of 'Culture and Reputation.' She does not have her own office, merely a desk with a view, on the same floor as the rest of her staff, so we meet in the Jessie Street conference room, named after the pioneering Australian feminist. There are also rooms dedicated to the ophthalmologist Fred Hollows, Olympian Betty Cuthbert and artist Arthur Boyd.

Mostyn came to IAG in early 2002 from an executive job at the telco Optus, where she ran corporate affairs and human resources. Before that, while only in her late 20s, she had been an adviser to former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. 'I found Labor under Keating had a pragmatic capitalist worldview but was also very socially progressive,' she recalls. 'I was comfortable with that.'

But Mostyn became increasingly uncomfortable with her role at a major corporation, especially as she watched other multinationals ¾ Enron in the United States and HIH in Australia ¾ fall prey to avarice and corruption. 'I decided I could not defend the whole concept of the corporation to people who mattered to me,' she explains. 'It was this thing about [it being] big, greedy, lacking in principle and distant from employees, customers and shareholders. I had to be able to explain to my daughter, for example, why I work. I could not simply say it is just to earn money.'

Mostyn, a lawyer by training who is married to a barrister with a big human rights case load, started looking for a job in the non-profit sector. Then she took a phone call from Michael Hawker, CEO of IAG. 'He said he wanted to run a company whose culture was its reputation,' she recalls. 'He said that good people need to be in a place where they add value.' He also told her he was willing to run a company that limited its returns to 'sustainable long-term targets' ¾ in other words, about 10 to 15 per cent a year.

Hawker lured Mostyn back to the corporate world by giving her the chance to shape everything from the company's employment policy ¾ with its six weeks paid parental leave, for example ¾ to its ethical guidelines and its 'concept of how business could incorporate socially responsible principles while making profits.' The company decided to make the often woolly notion of 'corporate social responsibility' as central to its identity as its home and contents insurance policies.

Consistent with IAG's open policy on corporate governance, each year it publishes the salaries of its top executives. According to the 2005 annual report, Mostyn earned a base salary of $478,000 and a total salary package of $1.119 million in the 2004 “05 financial year.

One of the big growth areas in what might be called 'conscionable' culturist employment is 'corporate social responsibility' (CSR) and sustainability, and almost every week, in every major city, you will find a conference or workshop dedicated to these themes. Like the one I find myself attending at a large Sydney hotel.

About 40 of us are assembled in a seminar room, some of us guiltily wrapping our mini Danish pastries in napkins for consumption during the presentations. At least 90 per cent of the delegates are women, aged mainly from their mid-30s to mid-40s. They all have short, sensible hairstyles and many wear fashionable rectangular-rimmed glasses. Two delegates are heavily pregnant but this, quite naturally, does not inhibit their 'full and valued input' into the opening plenary session.

I scan the attendance list and note people with titles such as 'Manager, Sponsorship and Communications,' 'Corporate Programs Manager,' 'Adviser, Corporate Sustainability' and 'Diversity Manager.' One represents a health insurance fund, another a multinational computer giant, another a government trading enterprise. Our conference kits include brochures with quotes from people such as Douglas Daft, the chief of Coca Cola, who said: 'We do not do business in markets; we do business in society.'

Projected on a screen are feel-good slogans such as, 'Imagine, Create, Innovate, Participate.' The presentations from the heads of corporate philanthropic foundations, government agencies and the ubiquitous 'CSR consultants' are heavy with phrases and buzzwords such as 'economic development strategies,' 'economic empowerment,' 'partnerships,' 'skills-sharing,' 'capacity building,' 'management models' and 'stakeholders.'

As the speakers show colour slides of people in wheelchairs, Muslim girls in headscarves, Asian kids on a slippery dip and a group of Aboriginal elders, they urge us to 'embrace diversity,' 'build community capacity,' 'create active, confident and resilient communities' and 'reduce barriers to opportunity.' Actually, they aren't speakers at all, merely 'facilitators,' whose primary purpose is to establish an equal and respectful discourse between all participants.

It is a workshop like this ¾ and in the offices of McKinsey & Company and Gilbert + Tobin, and the meeting rooms of IAG ¾ that one really sees the great chasm between culturist and materialist attitudes to work.

In one sense, materialists are refreshingly blunt: they have crippling mortgages on their houses, beach houses, prestige cars and luxury-cruisers. They have kids in blue-chip private schools, golf club memberships and airfares to foreign ski resorts. Quite often they also have dependent spouses. I need money, they figure, and in a market economy, where one's value is measured by salaries and bonuses, why should I operate to a different standard?

But culturists ¾ from lawyers to bureaucrats to sustainability consultants ¾ need, for their own peace of mind and conscience, to know they are, as the phrase goes, doing well by doing good.

For them, the world of work is more nuanced and if you can rationalise laying off 500 people to save the jobs of another 2000, or if your firm can build a park and community centre where you have just closed down a factory, then you can't be all bad.

This is an edited extract from Inside the Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteful (RRP: $17.95, Pluto Press Australia), the first in the new series of NOW Australia ¾ new journalism on contemporary issues by Australia's leading writers and journalists.

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