Clearer definition will help firms’ CSR commitments

It intrigues me how people in the legal profession frequently use the terms ‘pro bono’, ‘volunteering’ and ‘CSR’ as an interchangeable commodity.

Having been a corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager for 12 months, it still intrigues me how people in the legal profession frequently use the terms ‘pro bono’, ‘volunteering’ and ‘CSR’ as an interchangeable commodity. It seems that in some cases traditional pro bono is being recast as the more youthful ‘CSR work’, while in others pro bono can be absolutely anything a lawyer does that doesn’t involve an invoice.

Quite often I find myself having to start a conversation with the question: “But what do you mean exactly when you talk about pro bono work?” For example, if a lawyer picks up a paintbrush and redecorates a community centre, is that pro bono? Many readers I am sure would say it was, but I maintain that, with the development of CSR in the UK legal marketplace, now is the time for clarity of thinking. Pro bono is a part of CSR, as is volunteering.

Pro bono publico means for the public good. I would like to support a more understandable definition, ie ‘doing chargeable work for free or at reduced cost’. If a lawyer does that paint job, it should be considered as volunteering or community work, not pro bono – unless of course they have a decorating business and are giving their other professional skills for free. However, many fee-earners like to hold on to the label and the sense of self-worth it provides.

In the UK, largely as a result of 25 years of lobbying on the part of Business in the Community, CSR best practice has generally been accepted as encompassing other issues such as sustainability, ethical supply and how a business engages with its communities (whether through charitable volunteering or providing free legal advice). But the key issue is embodied in the final strand of most firms’ CSR policies – how a business supports its own workplace and therefore its own people.

If we accept that pro bono is indeed doing chargeable work for free, half of the employees of most law firms would then be barred from participating in this activity, simply because they are fee-spenders, not fee-earners. If a firm truly supports CSR principles, it would not want to exclude half of its people from doing good works. This is obviously good news for charities, which benefit from firms wanting to supplement the more traditional pro bono legal opportunities with volunteer work.

Lawyers can then choose whether to do pro bono legal work or support other charitable pursuits. In an ideal situation, both aspects have equal weight and equal importance. By seeking such clarity, all people in the business can remain enfranchised to participate and lawyers don’t need to talk about ‘doing pro bono’ any longer, unless it falls into the proposed definition above.

As one of our secretaries said a while back: “Why is it when I read with a primary school child, I say I’m helping the school, but when my boss does it he calls it doing pro bono?” Unify the terminology and in an instant everyone feels equally important and encouraged – supporting the workplace CSR.

Don’t forget, not all lawyers want to do pro bono anyway. I was suggesting potential pro bono opportunities for a partner’s sabbatical, when he said: “But I’m taking a break from the law, I’d much rather go to Africa and count goats if that helps the people there.”

Enlightened firms should see pro bono as one way of delivering elements of a community engagement programme, supplementing and being supplemented by volunteer work. The true power of CSR is when it is used to unify businesses behind a set of values. Any business that wants to be successful needs people to speak the same language and to establish a belief that every employee has worth and value.

Marcus Jamieson-Pond, CSR manager, Addleshaw Goddard