While some of this scepticism smacks of sour grapes from cheesed-off rivals, some of it is also a dig at the concept of CR itself.
“If changing things in the community is really important to you, then I suggest becoming a social worker and doing it full-time. Nothing but a cynical exercise in PR in my view,” writes one reader of TheLawyer.com.
It is easy to see where this sentiment comes from. Firms are first and foremost profit-making entities, not non-governmental organisations. And it could be argued that the advice lawyers provide to certain commercial clients enshrines the very structural disadvantages that CR work seeks to chip away at.
But Simmons CR and diversity partner Daniel Winterfeldt believes that the access firms have to big pots of money and influential networks can be capitalised on to effect a greater change.
“If we’re going to change the world it’s going to take everybody. As corporates and law firms we can do change on a bigger level,” he says in rousing tones. “Just because somebody works in the City, it doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute. Everyone has value – part of our programme is to unleash that.”
Winterfeldt is obviously not alone in this belief. The recent upsurge of CR ventures at the UK’s top firms shows it is fashionable across the profession.
But is this a short-term way of dealing with a demoralised and underutilised workforce during a downturn? Addleshaw Goddard CR manager Marcus Jamieson-Pond thinks that to look at it in that way would be to misunderstand what tends to preoccupy people during a downturn.
“When times are tough fee-earners want to be seen to be utilised rather than saying, ‘I’m off to read to some kids now’,” he says. “The emphasis is on fee-earning work, although support for our community and pro bono activity remains strong. For example, we organised 73 volunteering projects in June this year at a time of difficult trading conditions.”
The fact that Simmons is incorporating CR into its 2009-12 business plan suggests it is more than a short-term fix. And by including CR in the appraisal process it is dealing with an issue that has flummoxed the profession – how best to increase the uptake among staff.
But Winterfeldt believes that directly linking CR and pro bono involvement to financial rewards would pose some problems. “Cynically you could think that people could be clocking away the hours in order to get £500. What’s the worth of that?” he says. “We wouldn’t want to rule out the question of a financial bonus, but it’s difficult to structure and implement.”
Addleshaws has dealt with this by allowing CR to be one of a number of value-added activities, including business development, that employees can use to count towards a ‘value hours-linked’ bonus. This broad approach avoids a “mechanistic” mindset in which a fee-earner might say, “If I do my four hours gardening and four hours reading then I get my bonus”, according to Jamieson-Pond.
Addleshaws and others including Allen & Overy (A&O) and Herbert Smith also seek to engage staff through reducing the barriers to involvement. They either allow CR to count towards billable hours targets or avoid penalising employees for undertaking up to a fixed number of hours per year.
More unusual would be to impose a penalty for lack of involvement. How many children will want to be read to by a reluctant, clock-watching senior associate? Nevertheless, Susan Hazledine, A&O’s recently appointed head of social investment, thinks there is a case to be made for this strategy.
“I’m tempted to introduce something that makes people have to do it, because I think they’ll get real benefit from it,” she asserts.
Alongside the argument of financial, moral and corporate persuasion, perhaps this – the feel-good factor – would be the most effective tool for engaging staff in CR and ensuring their individual commitment to the programmes.
Genuine engagement and commitment. Now that would challenge the cynics.