Some while ago I attended a meeting addressed by a Pro Bono officer. We were advised that the government would be pleased to think that the profession had demonstrated its community spirit by making good the shortcomings in legal aid provision by offering services free of charge through a pro bono scheme.
Sensibly, those present were concerned that there should be a match between their skills and those required to fill the gaps left by those who had withdrawn from legal aid. There was some indignation among those present that we should be encouraged to fill a void created by a shortfall in government provision.
I was surprised recently to be told candidly by a senior partner at another substantial law firm that CSR ‘wasn’t for them’. They had taken the view that they have enough to do, coping with changes to regulation, adverse economic conditions, and the need to run the business. That is an understandable and legitimate reaction, but one that misses the point.
When considering CSR there can be a happy coincidence between what we want to do as members of the community and a compelling business case for doing it. The business case goes beyond the ability to tick boxes on a tender document. It can establish and demonstrate the firm’s values to those within it as well as clients, referrers and potential recruits – thereby promoting the firm within the community. It can play an important part in the development of those working within the firm and, yes, it can also be just charitable.
As with many aspects of practice that can be regarded as a time-consuming and costly additional burden, CSR is most effective when incidental to the way we do things. Indeed, the financial benefits of doing so are both real and quantifiable.
Good ‘CSR’ is not confined to a charity committee, nor only the lawyers within the firm. It grips all aspects of the practice and its management and is at least as active a part of work of the firm’s HR, Business Development and Facilities Management as any practice group or team.
We recognise the need to develop and practice the ‘softer’ skills of those working within the firm and are inclined to introduce expensive training to provide workshops and a variety of other means to this end. CSR can provide the means, not in substitution, but as part of the offering.
Employees who are encouraged to volunteer time will provide benefit to the community and gain real experience of the softer skills required. As this involves working in a different environment, with or without work colleagues present it will provide them with additional insight into how others work. There will be real challenges, both to preconceptions and to their own skills and abilities.
The benefits to the firm are obvious: a more complete individual, pleased to have assisted others, appreciative of the support provided in their workplace, the quality of the relationship they have with colleagues, clients and developing a vision that could contribute to the firm's strategic reviews. It is hard to see how there can be a downside.
The request to volunteer can be compared against objectives agreed for an individual in his or her appraisal. If permission is granted, the benefits can be evaluated as with any other type of training and discussed at later review.
The firm can invite employees to identify themes for support. The schemes and causes supported should be identified and recorded for use in those tender enquiries if nothing else. Case studies can be compiled as a ready response to the testing questions – you say you do it, but prove it! – put by clients or equally sceptical recruits.
Perhaps unfortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to work with various charitable organisations in every community. Most charities now recognise that employers will be encouraged to support their employees volunteering if they can see tangible benefits. They will usually provide necessary training and support to your employee prior to and during their volunteering process to ensure identified objectives are met. At a time when public funds are under review and are said to have accounted for 40% of the revenue of charities in the UK, the charitable sector is keener than ever to do business with others.
The environment in which we work is also changing; firms need people who have wide experience, capable of a flexible approach, resilient and optimistic. There are many opportunities and the ability and willingness to exploit them requires a range of skills beyond and in addition to being an able lawyer. Those qualities can be obtained through sensible and practical experience, gained while volunteering in the ‘third sector’.
In short, not only a happy coincidence between what we want to do and what we should do for our business but also one that can bring financial benefit both to the firm and causes that require financial support as well as ‘in kind’.
CSR is not just for Christmas (you never thought it was!), but should be a compelling part of any business offering and, yes, providing ‘pro bono’ advice via legal advice centres or Citizens Advice Bureaux can also be part of it.
Robert Bourns is senior partner at national law firm TLT
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