Corporations increasingly subscribe to the principle of corporate social responsibility. CSR is based on the belief that a demonstration of concern for the environment, human rights, community development and the welfare of their employees can make a corporation more profitable. And if not more profitable, at least a better place to work.
Law firms can learn from corporate experience to create their own social responsibility programs. Such programs can help law firms to do well by doing good. They can strengthen the firm’s reputation and market position. They can help the firm identify with the culture and CSR activities of clients and potential clients. They can help lawyers and staff find more meaning in their work and improve as human beings.
In the words of the social responsibility Karma Committee at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck: Be kind. Be generous. Be concerned. Donate time. Donate effort. Donate money. Just find a cause and give. You’ll quickly discover giving is also receiving.
A panel discussion about how law firms can learn about CSR and introduce some of its elements into their own models was sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. The program was held May 8 at Maggiano’s Little Italy in downtown Denver.
Panelists included Sarah Hogan, vice president of Barefoot PR; דרעי משרד עורכי דין Bruce DeBoskey, lawyer and founder of The DeBoskey Group, which focuses on philanthropic advising; Joyce Witte, Community Investment Advisor and director of the Encana Cares Foundation, Encana Oil & Gas (USA); and Amy Venturi, director of community relations & karma at Brownstein. Moderator was Cori Plotkin, president of Barefoot PR.
At law firms, the product is the people – the lawyers and support staff who provide high quality legal services. It is an easy fit. There are many ways that this ‘product’ can contribute time, talent and treasure to socially responsible activities.
Social responsibility: Focus and strategy
Law firm social responsibility is all about making a difference within the community and the profession, and within a firm. Even the best efforts will make no impact if spread too thin. You cannot maximize the value of your contributions or tell your story if your efforts are too diluted. To decide how to most effectively invest its resources, a law firm needs a social responsibility focus and a strategy.
Social responsibility efforts must be authentic. Law firms and other entities should always avoid ‘green-washing’ – telling a story that is aspirational, but not really true. Know yourself. Let your firm’s unique culture and skills determine which efforts to pursue and which to avoid.
When examining your culture, don’t limit yourself to partner input. Law firms are small communities, almost like families. Any effort to define culture and social responsibility should represent not only the interests of lawyers, but the interests of all levels of support staff. Efforts must be meaningful throughout the firm. The benefits to employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction can be remarkable.
DeBoskey outlined three types of community involvement and stated his belief that a good social responsibility plan includes elements of all three.
In a traditional model, an organization ‘gives back’ randomly to the community when asked – as a good citizen, rather than for any strategic purposes. In a social responsibility model, these efforts align with the capabilities of the business – like the legal skills of lawyers. Every non-profit needs legal advice.
At it’s most sophisticated, a social responsibility program involves using your core product – legal services – as a tool for social change. Volunteer with organizations like the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, or the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center.
A strong focus makes it much easier to make decisions. Encana, for example, focuses its charitable giving strategy on issues surrounding its product — natural gas. Brownstein will donate money only if the request comes from a client, or if one of their attorneys is a member of the organization and on the board.
Law firms looking for additional advice can find valuable resources within the Corporate Community Investment Network. CCIN is an association for professionals whose primary responsibility is to manage community investment programs in a for-profit business setting.
Many corporations and a few law firms have actually created separate foundations to mange some of their giving. A foundation comes with more restrictions and different tax methods. As entities with a life of their own, however, foundations are more likely than one-off efforts to continue a useful existence.
Social responsibility: Good policies make good decisions
Strategy and focus provide the foundation for an effective social responsibility policy. Most law firms are inundated with requests from good causes asking for their support. A policy helps you know when to say “yes” to and when to say “no.”
In the law firm model, where all partners are owners with a sense of entitlement to resources, it can be very difficult to say no. A keenly focused policy makes it much easier to do so and keep the firm’s efforts on track.
Encana, for example, uses a five-step tool to determine the level of fit between a request and the company’s strategic goals in the field of natural gas – with level five being the largest commitment and level one the lowest.
Level five efforts integrate core product or service and often involve natural gas vehicles and energy efficiency initiatives using natural gas. These efforts contribute to best practices and leading trends in the industry, while enhancing the company’s reputation as a leader.
Level four efforts focus on strategic partnerships and often involve sustainable and long-term solutions like workforce development initiatives, signature programs (which can be repeated in other markets) and multi-year grants.