No firm is an island

No firm is an islandWhen I joined FFW in 2005, I was surprised to find that there was no organised CSR programme. It seemed as though the partners felt there should be one and supported my subsequent proposals were met with immediate support.

Three years later CSR is something everyone at the firm regards as an integral part of our business and as something in which practically everyone is actively involved. This article is about how we got here.

First we had to assemble a group of people who would be committed to seeing the programme established. Moira Gilmour, our managing partner, made a point of attending all our early planning meetings, along with our director of operations; their involvement sent the clearest of signals to the firm as a whole that the project had the firm’s blessing, and meant that partners and assistants, secretaries and IT support crew felt confident that they could put time into CSR.

The group agreed from the start that CSR at FFW should never be merely cosmetic or done for show. If it was to attract continuing commitment it had to be grounded in our real values and to become part of our core activities. CSR should never be bad for our business, but neither would we be driven by business considerations when making our decisions. Those decisions were reflected in a statement of principles which is to be found on the firms internal and external websites; principles that outline, in short, why CSR goes beyond discrete acts of benevolence towards external people and organisations. CSR to us means being aware that the way we manage our business has an impact across many other communities, locally and globally. It means seeking to maximise the positive and minimise the negative impact of everything we, and the individuals who make us up, do.

We are proud of that statement,: it is honest and practical and has served us well as a touchstone for determining which initiatives to pursue.

We wanted a comprehensive programme, which would enable anyone in the firm to get actively involved. We set up “action groups”, which have now become five: pro bono; community involvement; charities; environmental performance; the FFW Community. Each group has its guiding committee and a larger pool of volunteers.

The charities group decided that it would support one international, one national and one local charity. The group prepared a well-researched shortlist of three in each category and, over a period of two weeks, presented them to the firm. We then held a firm-wide election and our three charities – WaterAid, Barnardos and Richard House – were elected. We have made a three-year commitment to them and so far have donated something approaching £100,000 in cash besides various gifts in kind.

The 31 fee earners and 16 partners who make up our pro bono volunteers have supervised advice on over 160 cases at the Queen Mary University of London Legal Advice Centre (QMUL) since we started in 2006.

Besides supervising, we continue to provide sessions of careers advice and on the skills of drafting, interviewing and researching to the second and third year law students. The legal advice centre itself has won the Attorney General’s Best Newcomer Pro Bono Award and was short-listed for this year’s Law Society Excellence Award.

The Mulberry School – which like QMUL is only a walk away from our offices – is an all-girls comprehensive whose student body is drawn from the predominantly Bangladeshi families of the area. Every term-time lunchtime, a group of FFW volunteers visits the school to play maths games with the Year 7 girls. The benefit is only partly to their arithmetic. We have been delighted to see the girls’ burgeoning self-confidence, as they have developed from shy and silent to cheeky and chatty.

Environmental performance have made carefully-considered decisions of policy: to concentrate on genuine changes in our own behaviour, rather than quick-fix gestures like carbon offsetting. We have made significant strides, reducing water use by 40 per cent, setting the defaults on all our printers to duplex and, at present, introducing near-paperless filing, with the consequent savings in haulage as well as resources. We have contracted with an external charity to recycle all our redundant IT and mobile phones. What cannot be re-used as kit for youth training schemes or for ‘silver surfers’ is stripped and the materials recovered: nothing goes to landfill.

And finally, our FFW Community group supports 6-a-side football and quizzes and karaoke nights and has recently experimented with free language classes for staff, which have been an enormous success.

What’s next? Well, the partnership has recently taken the first steps towards setting up a charitable trust of its own, which would enable us to get more out of the money we donate to other charities. We are looking at a potentially very exciting initiative for pro bono legal work. And then there are those offices in Brussels, Hamburg and Paris…

David Gollancz is a partner and chair of the CSR group at Field Fisher Waterhouse.