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Smell the fair trade coffee

As the new year dawns, Amber Melville-Brown says lawyers should resolve to take seriously corporate social responsibility - for the good of their communities and their practices

Pay attention to where it's from

As we welcome in the New Year our thoughts turn to making a fresh start and to consigning bad habits to the past -- we join the gym and give up the booze, we throw away unread papers, unworn clothes and unloved spouses; and we generally spring clean our lives.
This year, those of us with the power and the ability to do so – and that should include all readers of Global Legal Post – might give some thought to spring cleaning our approach to and impact on society, community and the environment.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the acknowledgement by organisations that they should be accountable not only for their financial performance, but for the impact of their activities on the wider world. Whether law firms should strive to be good corporate citizens is no longer a live debate; the focus today is on how successfully a firm achieves this mandate.

Blatant about values

CSR is at the heart of some businesses. The website of The Body Shop proudly proclaims: ‘We’re different because of our values.’ And customers of the ethical beauty shop know that when they put down their money, they are buying into community fair trade, anti-animal testing and protection of the planet. But it is slightly more difficult for a law firm to be so blatant about its values.
As the European CSR partner champion at this international law firm, for me CSR is about understanding and managing the relationships between our business and the community, the economy and the environment.
During my first year as CSR partner I became aware of the incredible generosity of individual colleagues and small groups within my firm, in terms of time and money spent in engaging with private charitable projects and philanthropic endeavours. But where those individuals can be organised to work collectively, they can have an even greater impact on the chosen charity or project. At the same time, there may be increased benefits for the firm as it showcases that combined effort as part of the formal CSR work of the firm. More than ever, the strength of a business must be aligned with its social values and a fully functioning, co-ordinated and structured focus to CSR can bolster a firm’s reputation within the legal sector and with its client base.  

Hard-nosed lawyers

For some, CSR may be a fluffy concept, window dressing for clients or, worse, a waste of time, distracting from the all important fee earning. But I am confident that engaging in CSR will in the long-term be seen as beneficial to even the most hard-nosed lawyers, ultimately impacting positively on the bottom line as well as benefitting society, community and the environment.
A fully integrated CSR policy that reflects a firm’s brand can help to ensure lawyers don’t lag behind their competitors, an important factor in a tough market place, where clients are looking for that added extra; it can raise a firm’s profile within the legal sector, helpful where referrals often come from others within the profession; it can serve as a focus for training and development across the pro-bono and volunteer fields, giving the opportunity for skills development for fee earners and support staff; it can assist in aligning the philanthropic interests of a firm and its clients through collaborative projects; and it will improve staff engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty.
CSR will generally include work in the pro bono sphere, providing advice to philanthropic clients and those with limited means for free or at reduced rates; it covers charitable work, money raising and giving; community projects concerning social inclusion, community development and education; and environmental issues, including carbon reduction, waste and recycling policies and ethical supply chains.

Walking the walk

Many firms have been operating in an ethical, sustainable manner for decades, long before the badge of CSR became the ‘it bag’ for the fashionable lawyer about town. It is inevitable that some will simply seek to talk the CSR talk, rather than walking the walk. But if some in the legal profession engage in CSR from a more Machiavellian perspective -- trusting that the CSR imprimatur will convince clients that they care about life beyond the bottom line, and thereby in fact, improving the bottom line -- does it matter? Or does the end result justify the fact that the firm doesn’t really mean to do any more than generate a greater draw? For some, CSR may be no more than a psychological seltzer, proffered to settle the conscience of those of us -- lawyers and clients alike -- uneasy about our impact on the planet. But if the ultimate result is a positive one, then that's all for the good.

Anyone operating in the service industry – and let’s not fool ourselves, we lawyers do – will ignore CSR at their peril. Those lawyers among us who have over indulged a little over the Christmas and New Year celebrations and are thinking of what resolutions to make (and keep) this year, should consider their impact on the planet and how it can be improved. Let’s start 2013 as we mean to go on -- banish the hangover of any bad habits from last year and wake up and smell the (fair trade) CSR coffee.

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02 January 2013

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