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Corporate responsibility and social impact for law firms - Do your clients care?

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

“The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. The Goals interconnect and in order to leave no one behind, it ís important that we achieve each Goal and target by 2030.”

You might be surprised to learn what your clients expect from you. A growing number of companies have signed on to the United Nations Global Compact—more than 12,000 in 165 countries. They’re committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and they expect vendors and suppliers to also commit toward a more just and sustainable world. And yes, this includes law firms and other professional service providers.

Partnership for the Goals—Using your legal expertise to lead change

As your clients and prospects embrace the UNSDGs, many, if not all would benefit from the skills, talents, and knowledge of the legal industry. Perhaps more than any profession, lawyers shouldn’t just BE the change they want to see in the world, but perhaps should be LEADING the change. As client companies step up, so should their lawyers—including in-house and outside law firms—to help achieve the changes necessary to progress toward these goals.

Goal number 17 – Partnerships for the Goals encourages signatory companies to ensure supply chain firms and vendors—including law firms—are also committed to making progress on the global goals. Hence, you may be seeing greater scrutiny than ever from clients during the RFP process, with probing and specific questions about your firm’s corporate responsibility and social impact programs. And these expectations go well beyond ProBono programs and Diversity & Inclusion efforts. This practice will only continue to increase as demands for change and the expectations of all stakeholders grow exponentially.

Goal #17 also encourages partnerships of all types to help make greater progress than any one organization could achieve alone. This is a tremendous opportunity for law firms to engage with their clients to work toward the global goals that are most relevant and material to them. Partnerships deepen relationships between companies when they collaborate to achieve even greater social impact.

You can take these simple steps to learn whether your clients are signators of the UN Global Compact and/or are working on any of the UNSDGs.

  1. Simply ask. Being proactive in this conversation can only help your position as a trusted advisor for all your clients’ business needs—including social impact and sustainability—as well as legal issues.

  2. Refer to the UN Global Compact website. Use the website search function to find your clients’ names and determine if they’re signators.

  3. Review your clients’ websites. Most companies who have joined the UN Global Compact and/or are using the UNSDGs as a framework for their social impact programs celebrate this on their website. Their specific social impact initiatives often are tied to the relevant UNSDGs their program aligns with. Your clients’ website will reveal their priorities for social impact programs.

Maturity stages of a law firm’s social impact program

Traditionally, law firms have played an integral role in their communities. Lawyers often serve on boards or as pro bono counsel for the community’s social initiatives and nonprofits. Charitable giving and philanthropy are often part of a lawyer’s DNA, and law firms encourage community engagement and volunteering. However, these efforts are often random and transactional.

Stakeholders are looking for vendors and service providers to be much more intentional and focused in their social impact efforts, allowing for greater outcomes.

Many use the continuum of Transactional to Transitional to Transformational tool to assess the maturity stages of a firm’s social impact program. Each stage involves varying levels of time, treasure, and talent:

  • Transactional: Transactional programs involve mostly donating money, perhaps a little bit of time, but rarely specific skills or talent. These efforts are sometimes referred to as “random acts of kindness.” All good, but unfocused.

  • Transitional: Transitional programs identify two to three themes and give corresponding guidance to local offices and practices. This approach offers guidance to local decision-makers. Usually, firms in the transitional stage give money, volunteer time, and perhaps align talent with the identified themes.

  • Transformational: At this level, firms identify broad projects that employees throughout the firm can participate in, along with third parties, whether they are clients or other public or private entities, nonprofits, or NGOs. Transformational initiatives consist of time, monetary donations, and talent. The corresponding impact is much, much greater than what any individual office or firm could achieve alone.

It is vitally important to note that these three phases of social impact need not be mutually exclusive, and in fact, rarely are. Most firms have initiatives underway in all three stages. In other words, just because a firm may launch a transformational program firm-wide doesn’t mean all initiatives already underway at the transactional or transitional phases must cease. Rather, initiatives in those phases may continue to advance along the spectrum to maturity.

Coming up In next edition’s article, I’ll discuss the growing practice of CSR “audits” or “ratings” and how clients use that process to assess and evaluate their outside law firms’ commitment to transformational social impact programs.

For more information, read last month’s article about the United Nations Global Compact, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the movement of companies all over the world engaging.


About the Author

Pamela Cone has more than 25 years' experience in the professional services industry in marketing and communications roles, and more recently, building social responsibility programs in collaboration with clients and in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of 2030. She is the Founder and CEO of Amity Advisory, a consultancy to help firms strengthen their CSR programs beyond transactional to achieve truly transformational social impact outcomes.

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