The reasons why law firms commit to corporate social responsibility vary, but what the best initiatives share is a focus on results. Joanna Goodman reports.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has always been high on the agenda for law firms. A Google search for ‘law firm CSR’ produces an exhaustive list of firm websites highlighting strong engagement in giving back to society through pro bono legal advice, charitable work and educational initiatives, programmes around the environment and sustainable business, and equality and diversity.

This is partly because many lawyers and other professionals are attracted to working in law firms by altruistic motives – a belief in promoting justice and human rights – in addition to enjoying a rewarding and often well-paid career.  

CSR has long been recognised by legal awards. The winners highlight the range of ways firms and corporate legal departments are deploying their skills to support charities and community projects.

For example, the recent FT Innovative Lawyers event recognised firms undertaking pro bono work to help tackle global humanitarian issues, notably the legal aspects of Europe’s refugee crisis, and to combat poverty and healthcare issues in developing countries. Closer to home, driven in part by cuts to legal aid and public sector services, law firms are engaged in activities that support access to justice and community initiatives for the homeless and other socially disadvantaged groups.

Awards and rankings indicate an industry-wide-commitment to CSR. However, there is a disconnect between firms being reported as penalising lawyers for clocking up insufficient billable hours while claiming that a significant percentage of the workforce is volunteering for charity work. The two statements are not mutually contradictory, but there is the potential for a culture clash.

The plethora of claims around CSR could be because it is generally recognised that CSR activities bring direct business benefits. They help to build and strengthen relationships with clients and suppliers, support recruitment and retention, and enhance job satisfaction and career prospects by helping people at all levels in the firm broaden their skills, competencies and professional networks. And then there are the profile-raising and business development elements. And all this is in addition to supporting communities and society at large.

Competitive boundaries collaboration

As well as boosting competitive advantage by differentiating firms in business pitches and ‘beauty parades’, CSR reaches across the legal sector’s competitive boundaries, with law firms and clients working together to deliver broader initiatives such as the Legal Social Mobility Partnership (LSMP).

The LSMP was established in 2013 by Barry Matthews, director of legal affairs at ITV, and Slaughter and May to give 20 disadvantaged secondary school pupils work experience in the legal sector. The programme has expanded rapidly. In 2016 more than 200 pupils from London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds experienced two-week work placements in law firms and major corporates, together with resilience training from Harlequins RFC and other skills and careers workshops. Participating corporates include Microsoft, Amazon, Adidas and Aston Martin.

CSR commonly appears as an element of business pitches and requests for proposal. It is even becoming a contractual obligation, particularly with work related to equality and diversity. Therefore, a firm’s broader CSR agenda could make the difference between winning and losing business. ‘It absolutely goes to the bottom line,’ says Lorna Gavin, head of diversity, inclusion and corporate responsibility at Gowling WLG. ‘CSR is like glue; it helps us bind more closely with our clients.’

Gavin explains how a shared commitment to supporting the local community strengthens the firm’s relationship with longstanding clients: ‘Some clients, for whom CSR is particularly important, want to work with suppliers for whom it’s equally important.’

David Richardson, regional managing director for commercial banking at Lloyds, believes that working together on community projects has intensified the relationship between Lloyds’ corporate team and Gowling’s Birmingham office.

In 2012 Richardson, Gavin and Nick Venning, then marketing director at PwC, wanted to find ways for businesses in Birmingham to support the community. They asked companies for young professional volunteers to run a biannual community project in the city. This led to Project 12, which helped people recovering from mental illness to return to work, and Project 14 ‘Suited for Success’, which provided interview clothes for unemployed people. Project 16 is under way now.

Other shared initiatives include an annual ‘sleep out’ for St Basil’s youth homeless charity (the next one is on 25 November – and working for In Kind Direct (, which redistributes products donated by companies such as Proctor & Gamble – soap, cleaning materials, paper and so on – to charities. Teams from Lloyds and Gowling work together in its Telford distribution centre. These activities do not leverage professional skills, but are an opportunity to bring together volunteers from different parts of the business (not just bankers and lawyers).

Support strategy

While people in law firms are personally committed to ‘doing the right thing’, CSR requires investment – in roles, responsibilities and relationships, as well as time. And as Gavin observes, it can easily slip down the list of priorities when a business is under pressure. It therefore requires senior management commitment and a clear strategy. Gowling has had a dedicated corporate responsibility team since the 1990s. Gavin is part of that team and reports directly to the firm’s chairman.

How do firms decide which causes to support? One starting point which resonates with staff is identifying the needs of the community, and specifically how legal and financial professionals can help. This is where the Gowling, Lloyds Banking Group and PwC project started.

Gavin is passionate about leveraging people’s professional knowledge – including legal skills, but also business skills from financial management to mentoring – as well as making sure that Gowling’s CSR programme, which focuses on pro bono, volunteering and charitable giving, is inclusive and not just for lawyers and senior managers. ‘It is important to be needs-led and to use the skills we have,’ she says. ‘Pro bono is the obvious way for lawyers to help the community, but there are other opportunities to use our business skills to help our communities and raise awareness among our professionals too – for example, when they help our homeless placements write their CVs.’

Corporate responsibility manager Catherine Correia joined Burges Salmon during the 2008 recession with the remit of delivering a coordinated programme. A six-strong CR committee meets on a monthly basis and reports to the board. In addition to the firm’s longstanding commitment to pro bono, CR projects focus on the environment, employability and social mobility, and citizenship, which is about working with local communities.

‘Lawyers are keen to use their skills and resources to support the less privileged,’ Correia says. The firm’s volunteering policy includes individual volunteering, working in groups and with clients. Like Gowling, Burges Salmon increasingly sees questions on pitches specifically about collaborating on community and charitable projects. Correia believes that the firm’s CR credentials contributed directly to client wins, which last year included John Lewis and Virgin.

Taking the initiative

The range of ‘CSR’ activities undertaken by law firms is wide, including:

  • Pro bono legal advice – for example to refugees and organisations that support them.
  • Intern and work experience schemes to improve access to the legal profession for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Providing skills and resources that improve employability for people identified as being in need.
  • Working in legal advice centres.  
  • Charity fundraising.
  • Governance support.
  • Creating technology to support law centres.
  • Inclusion of pro bono or charity work in billable targets for fee-earners.
  • Hands-on work to improve the local environment.
  • A corporate commitment to human rights – through human rights audits and correcting problems identified.

When Tyrone Jones, director of CSR and engagement, joined DWF six years ago, he was tasked with turning a collection of good deeds into a credible CSR proposition that reflected the firm’s values. It was a thorough process. First, Jones and his team turned to external stakeholders to discover the key issues in each of the firm’s office locations. They then carried out a community engagement survey to find out what resonated with people in the firm. This identified four themes: education (including raising aspirations); employability (people in law firms are keen to use their knowledge and skills to add business value in the community); wellbeing (people want to work for a business that cares for its people and its community responsibilities); and homelessness. The community engagement survey is repeated every four years.

At DWF, CSR has a robust governance structure which starts at the top with a CSR leadership group chaired by managing partner and CEO Andrew Leaitherland. Jones and his team manage CSR groups across locations and a network of CSR/diversity champions across the business.

At Osborne Clarke, the CSR agenda is bottom-up rather than top-down. It is driven by individuals with an interest in or connection to particular causes, who are supported by the firm’s resources, network and goodwill. Dipika Keen, head of knowledge for the business transactions group, is a trustee of the Avon & Bristol Law Centre, which provides free social welfare law advice. On legal education, Osborne Clarke lawyers mentor law students who have set up an advice centre for start-ups.

Each of Osborne Clarke’s three offices votes for a cause which it then supports for two years. Anyone in the firm can nominate a cause and explain why the firm should support it. There is then an online vote and all fundraising efforts support the winning cause. Last year the Bristol office supported the Jack Banks Star Tribute Fund which was set up by an Osborne Clarke employee. It is now supporting Children’s Hospice South West. Keen explains that the person who nominates the winning charity acts as its coordinator and sits on the office charity committee which organises fundraising events.

More specific projects are agreed by the charity committee of each office. These have a partner sponsor and cover themes such as education and social mobility. Joint activities with clients tend to be team-building – such as charity bike rides and renovation projects. Osborne Clarke’s CSR efforts focus on relationships within the firm and with local communities. ‘The organic way these are managed encourages involvement from all parts of the business,’ Keen adds. ‘Rather than being decided at the top level, it’s about tapping into people’s interests so they find time to participate.’

It seems that whichever way firms go about choosing CSR themes, they generally report relatively high firm-wide engagement with altruistic and community activities.

CSR makes business sense

This reflects well on the profession given that time is the main unit of lawyer productivity (and lawyers are targeted on chargeable hours), and consequently a volunteering culture means finding ways to recognise the value of volunteering time. At Gowling the first 50 hours spent on pro bono work is counted towards lawyers’ billable target.

DWF has developed a detailed scheme for measuring CSR performance which is similar to the overall strategy at Lloyds. Performance against action plans and key performance indicators (KPIs) is reported through the CSR leadership group and to the executive board every six months. The firm participates in external benchmarking to assess its CSR performance, drive improvement and share best practice. CSR benchmarking includes BITC’s CommunityMark, Environment Index and various diversity benchmarks.

From November, a new online platform will monitor CSR performance in real time. ‘We have partnered with a social enterprise to implement this transparent reporting tool and will be the first UK firm to launch it,’ Jones says. The volunteering policy gives people up to two days paid leave for voluntary CSR activity and recognises that certain activities will require more time. Participation rates of 36% across the firm are exceeding its 30% target and each location has its own KPIs. ‘We wondered if we needed a volunteering policy, because volunteering was normalised in the business,’ Jones adds.

‘However some areas are more challenging so we wanted to give people support.’ People can share their impressions of their volunteering experiences on Yammer (the firm’s internal social network) and this also gives leadership the opportunity to recognise their efforts and thank them.

Burges Salmon’s top-down volunteering culture is reflected in a 56% participation rate across the firm, which recently won CSR Firm of the Year at the 2016 Bristol Law Society Awards. Although time spent volunteering is not offset against chargeable hours, it is reflected in annual reviews, which also recognise the efforts of professionals from business support departments who are not targeted by time. The firm’s volunteering policy gives everyone in the firm two volunteering days in addition to annual leave – and a third day to volunteer with clients. Notable collaborations include one with the Canal & River Trust.

Identifying the benefits to the business helps keep CSR high on the agenda and justify continued investment. ‘There are huge benefits to our people, both in terms of recruitment, and retention in terms of wellbeing and job satisfaction,’ says Gavin. ‘It is also a great development opportunity. Volunteering helps lawyers and others develop core competencies that they can bring back to their work.’

Correia agrees: ‘We encourage people to take on responsibilities that develop valuable skills they can bring back to the workplace, like becoming a trustee or mentoring, and we work with our learning and development team to provide training.’

It is also a business benefit to establish firms in their local communities. ‘We don’t work in a vacuum,’ Gavin says. ‘It’s easy for large law firms in particular, whose clients are at the upper echelons of the corporate world (and the public sector) to forget that they are also part of a community. CSR goes some way towards redressing that.’

Community projects also bring together people from different parts of the firm, building the internal community while helping the external one. Last year Burges Salmon partnered with Avon Wildlife Trust on the My Wild Street project renovating people’s gardens, which improved the area and brought together people in the community and people in the firm. On the legal education side, the firm organises legal information days for schoolchildren facilitated by the firm’s trainees and a week-long work experience programme which also involves parents and teachers.

Environmental commitments provide bottom-line benefits by cutting costs. ‘Obviously if you cut paper consumption and energy, you are also saving money,’ says Gavin, noting that when you add up the various elements of CSR, it makes business sense: ‘It is not just an add-on.’

Gavin considers the benefits to the firm’s public profile as ‘a happy side effect’ and believes it is relatively easy to identify organisations that are doing it just for the publicity. She defines authentic corporate responsibility as doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.

A wider role for CSR

Burges Salmon’s inclusivity in volunteering extends into its work with schools. Correia and her team use the firm’s work experience programme to break down the perception that working for a law firm means being a lawyer. ‘There are 300 business support professionals here – and work experience students also shadow our IT, marketing, HR and KM [knowledge management] professionals,’ she says. Other firms are also reflecting on how legal services delivery has become more reliant on processes and technology.

The increasing role of technology in firms has also had an impact, with Berwin Leighton Paisner’s IT director Mike Nolan and his team taking on work experience students and a legal technology intern. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer innovation architect Milos Kresojevic led Fresh Innovate, the winning team at Legal Geek’s first lawtech hackathon, devising a portal management system to enable Hackney Community Legal Centre to improve its service provision without the need for a bigger budget, thereby using technology to extend access to justice.

Broadening the reach of CSR is also about walking the talk. Corporates are asking law firms about their CSR efforts and firms that are genuinely committed to CSR values are choosing to work with clients and suppliers that share those values. For example, Gowling’s CSR agenda is a significant consideration for taking on clients and instructions and selecting suppliers. ‘We held a responsible business forum for suppliers and contractors, which led to shared projects and engaging suppliers in CSR activities,’ explains Gavin. ‘For example, our catering and front-office teams, both of which are outsourced, have partnered with us in providing work placements for homeless people. We have found huge potential for collaboration with clients, suppliers and competitors.’

Taking this further, research by Norton Rose Fulbright and the British Institute of International and Comparative Law made a case for human rights due diligence on the grounds that looking at the business through a human rights prism identified significantly more actual or potential human rights risks in supply chains. The report found that managing responsibility for impacts caused by third-party suppliers was a common issue.

One challenge was that the CSR function ‘will most often have responsibility for the identification, response to and monitoring of human rights impacts, often in cooperation with other functions, particularly the legal department’. Perhaps this flags up an opportunity for law firms to work with their corporate clients to manage the risk of inadvertently breaching human rights principles and legislation – and thereby extend their own CSR impact by spreading those values.

Joanna Goodman is a freelance journalist