Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an increasingly hot topic in the political and business community. It doesn’t appear to be such a major issue in the legal community, however.
Law firms are not big polluters: they don’t tend to be in the market for products that might be made in sweatshops, while their employees are white-collar and generally well paid. But law firms should still worry about or invest in CSR for two simple reasons: first, the business case for investing in CSR is overwhelming; and second, the environmental case is seemingly unanswerable.
The term CSR is a recent addition to the business dictionary, but not a new idea. Joseph Rowntree was putting CSR principles into practice in the 19th century. In its original form, it centred on being an ethical employer, but in recent years it has developed into a set of recognisable principles governing how a business should treat its ‘stakeholders’ – employees, customers, suppliers and the local community.
The Government is clearly committed to promoting CSR, even developing a website devoted to the subject (www.csr.gov.uk), which urges businesses to consider “the voluntary actions that business can take, over and above compliance with minimum legal requirements, to address both its own competitive interests and the interests of wider society”.
Currently the emphasis is on the voluntary assumption of CSR, but there is no doubt that both the current Government and the Conservative Party are committed to developing it. Public sector employers are already asking searching questions about CSR in pitches and tenders. Within a relatively short period of time it is likely that a coherent CSR policy will be essential in order to pitch for this type of work.
Still, if a firm does not do public sector work, why should it be concerned with CSR? There is a clear business case. History shows that reforms in the public sector are often adopted by the wider business community. Law firms do not exist in a cosy bubble: if you think that CSR is not relevant to your firm or is something that is not important, you have not been keeping pace with either your clients or public perception.
CSR is increasingly forming a key part of the ‘core values’ of modern businesses, large and small. Clients and potential clients want to deal with other businesses that put into practice the principles of maximising benefits and minimising downsides. To fail to implement CSR is to be left out of a virtuous loop.
Within a relatively short period of time it is likely that a coherent CSR policy will be essential in order to pitch for private and public sector work. More generally, CSR policies tend to express a positive aim that all suppliers follow CSR principles. If this is put into practice then a law firm that does not have a CSR policy is unlikely to find itself on many panels in the future.
The green and community-focused aspects of CSR can also be key points of differentiation for recruiting and motivating staff within any organisation. Attracting and retaining the best staff is increasingly problematic for many law firms, and today’s graduates are passionate about CSR issues, or at least aware of their importance. If the firm they work for understands the issues and takes action then they are more likely to be attracted to the firm and will be happier, more loyal and ultimately more productive as employees.