Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Random acts of kindness make an impact, but to be truly transformational, your firm must go to the next level.
The first step in your evolution is to analyze where you stand now. In this article, you’ll find a list of questions to answer about your firms’ current programs and practices. This data will help you take steps to move your firm’s CSR program from transactional, random acts of kindness to a truly transformational program that makes a larger social impact.
How does your social impact program function today?
Most law firms today have pro bono programs and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Perhaps they even have a “green team” of interested employees who focus on sustainability issues, such as recycling, reducing paper waste, and switching to LED lighting. These programs are usually isolated and completely independent of each other. While each program likely achieves good outcomes, this structure doesn’t maximize the value it could by taking a more holistic, collaborative, and strategic approach.
Answer these questions about your firm’s programs:
Are your pro bono, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability programs aligned with your business strategy?
Are you leveraging the highest and best talents and skills of your lawyers for greater social impact through your pro bono work? Provide examples.
Does your pro bono work align with your firm’s social impact goals?
How does your diversity and inclusion program help deliver on your firm’s business strategy?
How are you collaborating with clients for greater diversity and Inclusion results?
Are the leaders of each of these programs part of the firm’s governing body? Is firm management listening to program leaders?
Does firm management consider the social impact ramifications of its decisions?
Your program is “transactional” if your social responsibility initiatives function in completely separate siloes, aren’t collaborative in nature, and aren’t part of the firm’s governance process. Your firm is missing an opportunity for much greater social impact if you are at the transactional stage. Migrating your social impact programs into a more holistic approach will leverage your efforts and achieve more results that align with the firm’s strategy.
What does the next stage look like and how does a firm get there?
Maturity stages of a CSR and sustainability program
One way to understand the maturity stages of a social impact program is to consider the following three stages: Transactional, Transitional, and Transformational. Here’s what a program looks like at each stage.
Transactional. This is the most common description of law firm’s programs today. Occasionally, due to a client request, a partner’s passion, or an employee’s initiative, the firm (or more likely an individual office) and its people will get energized around a particular cause or event. They might form a team to play in a charitable golf tournament with a client, or there might be a team of employees who volunteer to do a park clean-up, or perhaps a gift drive at holiday time. These are all great community involvement activities, and they are all worthy causes. However, there is no overall strategy or focus, and these activities are stand-alone, random, and not strategic to the business. This is considered a “transactional” program—offering time, but not talent or treasure.
Transitional. The next step in the maturity of a social impact program can be described as transitional. In this phase, it’s likely the firm is a bit more focused in its efforts. Perhaps the firm has identified specific themes or specific partnering organizations or causes. Aligning with such themes or with specific partners allows for greater outcomes, simply because of the increased concentration of resources toward more focused objectives. In this phase, a firm is likely to be offering time and treasure—and perhaps even a bit of talent as well (such as pro bono work).
Transformational. The ultimate phase of a social impact program is to operate at the transformational level. For a social impact program to be truly transformational, the firm must set specific themes and objectives that align with its specific talents and skills. The firm will have sought specific, collaborating organizations with whom to form partnerships (including clients), thus achieving more than the firm could achieve alone. At this stage, the firm provides time, treasure, and talent to achieve greater results and greater social impact.
Social responsibility programs must align with the firm’s business strategy
Given growing expectations of stakeholders (clients, business partners, recruits and employees), corporate social responsibility can no longer be an afterthought. These initiatives need to be strategic to the firm’s mission and business focus. Firm management must consider environmental, social, and governance issues as factors in its decision-making. Where are your firm’s efforts on the transactional, transitional, transformational scale? What steps does your firm need to take in order to achieve transformational outcomes? What does transformation even look like for a law firm?
The CSR issues are based upon international standards such as the 10 Principles of the UN Global Compact, the International Labour Organization conventions, the Global Reporting Initiative’s standards, the ISO 26000 standard, the CERES Roadmap, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights— also known as the Ruggie Framework.
The issues covered in each assessment are based on the relevance of the 21 CSR issues to the company context, such as industry, size, and geography and shape the client questionnaire.
Resulting scorecard and benchmarks. Companies can engage EcoVadis to audit and assess their selected supply chain vendors, and/or they can participate in an assessment in order to obtain an EcoVadis scorecard for their own firm. Law firms that represent multinational and global clients may be asked to provide their EcoVadis score, so firms may want to be proactive and complete the assessment each year to have their scorecard available when clients ask for it.
Your EcoVadis assessment also provides benchmarks against which you can strive to improve. Since the process includes a rating methodology based on activity, size, and geography of the assessed company, this produces standardized scores that benchmark CSR performance of companies like yours and clearly shows how your score compares to similar companies.
Businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose can be certified as B Corporations. Driven by a higher standard, B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift. Clearly, the world’s most pressing challenges can’t be fixed by nonprofits and government agencies alone.
“The B Corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high quality jobs with dignity and purpose,” according to the nonprofit B Corporation Lab website. “By harnessing the power of business, B Corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment.”
Becoming a B Corp—Certify your company for the good of the world
Certification requires three levels of assessment and commitment.
Third-party assessment: Certified B Corporations achieve a minimum verified score on the B Impact Assessment—a rigorous assessment of a company’s impact on its workers, customers, community, and environment.
Public transparency. B Corps make their B Impact Report transparent by posting it on the B Corporation website.
Legal accountability. Certified B Corporations also amend their legal governing documents to require their board of directors to balance profit and purpose. The combination of third-party validation, public transparency, and legal accountability help Certified B Corps build trust and value. Learn more about B Corp certification.
Why should you care?
An increasing number of stakeholders voice their desire to do business with businesses who are “certifiably” committed to purpose as well as profit. This expectation includes their service providers, including law firms.
Tools and benchmarks such as an EcoVadis report card and score and the B-Corp Certification are among the many tools and certifications which are becoming global standards.
For more information, read last month’s article about the role clients have begun to play in auditing their outside firms’ social impact and sustainability programs. What would your firm’s social impact report card look like?
In next edition’s article, I’ll share a few case studies of law firms who have implemented truly transformational social impact programs, achieving much greater results than the traditional transactional approach.
If you’d like to measure your current program and create a transformational strategy, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.