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The bonus season for banks brings something less welcome for business schools.

Questions return about the role of business education in producing a culture in the financial sector that appears insensitive to the fate of those stuck at the bottom of the economy.

Do business schools do enough to instil a sense of empathy, to say nothing of responsibility, in their graduates, educating them to respond not just to their powerful shareholders but to their many stakeholders in society?

Certainly the transformation of some of these stakeholders into “occupiers” – those who have so little stake in the system that they turn to the Occupy movement – suggests the “disconnect” is deeply felt today, despite the efforts of some business schools to ratchet up ethics education.

Anyone brave enough to admit they attend a business school, never mind teach in one, is likely to be the focus of sardonic criticism. Yet law schools rarely seem to have a finger pointed in their direction and today appear to experience little public vilification. This is despite the fact that lawyers, not just accountants and investment bankers, have been very much at the heart of recent accounting and banking scandals and now the financial crisis.

We could even say that law schools have somehow managed what business schools have been unable to do – maintain a level of respect not just because of the ethical qualities of those they graduate, but despite the sometimes failing standards of their graduates. But this cannot be said of business schools which have suffered with the flagging reputations of their graduates. Why this difference?

One reason that law schools appear to escape this blame might be because they not only “talk the talk” of ethics, but “walk the walk”, through their commitment to pro bono work. In giving up their time and their fees, law professors have demonstrated their commitment to the needs of those who cannot afford legal advice, and law schools have reaped the benefit of supporting professors in their community clinic work.

At the same time, law professors have been able to teach ethics to their law students not by preaching at them, but by involving them in these clinics. In working directly with clients, law students get a feel for the murky moral worlds that must be navigated to maintain professional standards, a far more effective experience than signing a pledge or completing a case study, as in business schools.

Moreover, the pro bono ethos of law schools has had a real impact on the industry itself, with many firms today boasting of a partner dedicated specifically to pro bono co-ordination in the firm. By contrast, business ethics professors, despite their best efforts, have by and large failed to create real organisational and leadership commitments of a similar kind in the banking sector where many business school graduates aspire to work.

As well as benefiting the third sector, business schools too can benefit from this pro bono culture. NGO clinics, which provide free consultancy on strategy and organisational change to small and emerging not-for-profit organisations can improve the image of business schools. Undertaking pro bono work can also help those who cannot afford to pay for organisational consultants and also provides schools with an invaluable education into the vast array of strategic, organisational and ethical issues that occupy stakeholders as much as they do companies.

The pro bono culture is beginning to spread to business schools across the UK and in the near future all business schools will learn to “walk this walk” by giving away some of their professional advice. By doing so, they will also set their students on the path to understanding how difficult the journey can be for those who have been left behind and how rewarding it can be to ease their passage.

Prof Stefano Harney is founder of the NGO Clinic at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary, University of London. Dr Emma Dowling is a lecturer in organisational change at the school.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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