Doing Good: Social Responsibility of Law Firms

Businesses are increasingly embracing the principles of corporate social responsibility. CSR is based on the belief that showing concern for the environment, human rights, community development and employee well-being leads to more profits for companies. If not more profitable, at least a better place to work.

Law firms can learn from corporate experience and develop their own social responsibility plans. Such programs can help law firms do good by doing good. They can strengthen a company’s reputation and market position. They can help companies identify with their customers and potential customers’ cultural and corporate social responsibility activities. They can help lawyers and staff find more meaning in their work and enhance their humanity.

In the words of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s Social Responsibility Karma Council: Be kind. Be generous. focus on. Give time. Make efforts. donate. Just find a reason and give it. You will soon discover that giving is also receiving.

The Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association hosted a panel discussion on how law firms understand CSR and incorporate some elements of it into their own models. The program is held at Maggiano’s Little Italy in downtown Denver on May 8th.

Panelists included Sarah Hogan, vice president of PR at Barefoot; Bruce DeBoskey, attorney and founder of The DeBoskey Group, which focuses on philanthropic consulting; Joyce Witte, community investment advisor for Encana Oil & Gas (US) and director of the Encana Cares Foundation; and Brownstein Community Amy Venturi, director of relationships and karma. The moderator is Cori Plotkin, President of Barefoot PR.

In a law firm, the product is the people—the lawyers and support staff who deliver high-quality legal services. It’s an easy fit. This “product” can contribute time, talent and wealth to socially responsible activities in a number of ways.

Social Responsibility: Priorities and Strategies

Social responsibility of a law firm is about making a difference in the community and the profession, as well as within the firm. If spread too thin, even the best efforts will have no effect. You can’t maximize the value of your contribution or tell your story if your efforts are diluted. In order to decide how to invest their resources most effectively, law firms need to focus on social responsibility and develop a strategy.

Social responsibility efforts must be authentic. Law firms and other entities should always avoid “greenwashing” — telling an aspirational story that isn’t true. Knowing yourself. Let your company’s unique culture and skills dictate which efforts to pursue and which to avoid.

When examining your culture, don’t limit yourself to your partner’s input. Law firms are small communities, almost like a family. Any effort to define culture and social responsibility should represent the interests not only of lawyers but of support staff at all levels. Efforts across the company must be meaningful. The benefits to employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction are significant.

DeBoskey outlined three types of community engagement and said he believes a good social responsibility program includes all three elements.

In the traditional model, organizations would randomly “give back” to the community when asked – as a good citizen, not for any strategic purpose. In the social responsibility model, these efforts are aligned with the capabilities of the business—such as the legal skills of lawyers. Every nonprofit needs legal advice.

At its most complex, a social responsibility program involves using your core product – legal services – as a vehicle for social change. Volunteer at organizations such as the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver or the Rocky Mountain Children’s Legal Center.

Intense focus makes making decisions a lot easier. For example, Encana focuses its charitable giving strategy on issues related to its product, natural gas. Brownstein will only donate if the request comes from a client, or if one of their attorneys is a member and board member of the organization.

Law firms seeking additional advice can find an invaluable resource at the Enterprise Community Investment Network. CCIN is an association of professionals whose primary responsibility is the management of community investment projects in a for-profit business environment.

Many corporations and some law firms have actually created separate foundations to manage some of their endowments. Foundations have more restrictions and different taxation methods. However, as an entity with a life of its own, the Foundation is more likely to survive than a one-off effort.

Social Responsibility: Good Policy Makes Good Decisions

Strategy and priorities provide the foundation for an effective social responsibility policy. Most law firms are inundated with requests from legitimate causes for their support. Policies can help you know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

In the law firm model, all partners are owners with resources, so it’s hard to say no. A highly centralized policy makes this easier and keeps the company’s efforts on track.

For example, Encana uses a five-step tool to determine how well a request fits with the company’s strategic goals in the natural gas sector—level five being the greatest commitment and level one the lowest.

Level 5 Effort Integrate core products or services And often involves natural gas vehicles and energy efficiency initiatives that use natural gas. These efforts contribute to industry best practices and leading trends, while enhancing the company’s reputation as a leader.

Tier 4 efforts focus on strategic partnerships And often involves sustainable and long-term solutions, such as workforce development programs, signature programs (which can be replicated in other markets), and multi-year grants.

Tier 3 Efforts Include Strategic Grants Assist local nonprofits with gas-related projects, programs or initiatives.

Secondary efforts include responsive giving, a one-time gift for a wide-ranging community effort with local support. The participation of a company representative is required.

Tier 1 effort Includes the T-Shirts & Banners category, which features one-day programs such as dinners, receptions, golf tournaments, events, and competitions. These offer the least financial impact and awareness, and therefore the least support.

At Brownstein, requests made to companies are judged by two factors. The firm only considers requests from clients and from organizations for which one of its attorneys sits on the board.

Social Responsibility: Participation

An effective social responsibility program involves not just checkbook engagement, but personal and professional engagement as well.

At Brownstein, the brand has always strived to be involved in the community. Six years ago, Venturi was asked to further energize lawyers by formalizing this important part of the firm’s culture as a social responsibility program.

She starts by spending 15 minutes talking to each attorney to discover their passions—and those passions are used to identify a good nonprofit match. After all, lawyers and staff stay engaged and do their best work only when an organization is something they care deeply about. Without engagement, placement will backfire.

Finally, Venturi provides counsel to nonprofits in some capacity—but only at the board level. Otherwise, she won’t match.

Project Karma is a Brownstein initiative dedicated to volunteer opportunities and has a committee in each of the company’s 12 offices. It sponsors informal lunches and learning presentations with local nonprofits to encourage interest.

Information about the active participation of lawyers and staff must come from the top. Brownstein makes it very clear that a new attorney’s path to partnership is based not only on legal skills but also on engagement and engagement with the community.

It is important to include a community engagement component in attorney reviews, even if there is only one goal a year. This lets the lawyer know you mean business.Colorado Supreme Court requires every attorney to contribute 50 hours of gratuitous Work every year. Integrating these programs can lead to a win-win outcome for the company.

Not every firm can match the efforts of a giant like Encana or a big law firm like Brownstein. However, there are good matches for companies of all sizes. Again, it’s all a matter of focus.

In fact, it is much easier to get five members of a small firm to focus on a strategic plan than it is to have 500 lawyers at a large firm. If a law firm has $10,000 to donate, that’s a lot more money and a lot more impact on one organization than the father of $100 donating to 100 organizations.

Smaller law firms can also expand their reach by partnering with others in the industry, such as suppliers or clients, to support specific nonprofits.

Social Responsibility: Return on Investment

Companies measure the results of their social responsibility programs and use those results to inform future efforts. Law firms should do the same.

At the end of the year, Encana uses its five-level model (outlined above) to analyze our charitable giving. How much is given for each level?The company then sends each nonprofit a form asking recipients to evaluate result (completed stats), process (whether the effort satisfies the target audience) and Influence (what difference does that make).

Encana requires recipients to respond within 60 days and uses this information to calculate return on investment. Those who do not report are not eligible for further contributions. Nonprofits may complain at first, but once they go through the process, they seem to change their minds — finding it to have useful strategic value.

It’s perfectly appropriate to ask nonprofits to document the results they achieved based on your contributions. It lets them know that you are truly invested in the organization. They’ll see you more as a partner and interact with you differently.

Most companies benefit from having well-thought-out, strategic social responsibility programs in place. Law firms are starting to do the same. A program with a clear focus and strict guidelines ensures maximum impact and visibility in exchange for a law firm’s investment of time, talent and financial resources.

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