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What does a transformational social impact program look like?

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

Case studies of holistic, strategic, social impact programs in the legal industry

Legal firms and their clients are banding together to create transformational social impact programs. Lawyers and community organizations in Washington D.C. joined forces on a solar power project that benefits low-income tenants. And 11 law firms are delivering pro bono legal services to clients that drive sustainability transformation. These are just two examples of how lawyers are taking social impact programs to the next level and raising their visibility in the industry.

In the previous article of this series, I described the maturity stages of a firm’s social impact program. And I invited you to assess your firm’s programs to rate your place on this maturity continuum.

  • Transactional: The firm works on activities and initiatives, but it doesn’t have an overall strategy. 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: In this phase, efforts are more focused. Perhaps the firm has identified specific themes or specific partner organizations or causes. In this phase, firms are likely offering time and treasure—and perhaps even a bit of talent, such as pro bono work.

  • Transformational: For true transformation, the firm sets specific themes and objectives aligned with its specific talents and skills. It collaborates with organizations, including clients, to achieve more than it could alone. The firm provides, time, treasure and talent to achieve greater outcomes and social impact.

So, what does a transformational strategy look like?

Truly transformational programs are still few and far between in the legal industry. If you elevate your program, you’ll stand out. Here are a few examples of firms working on transformational social impact outcomes:

DLA Piper, a firm which has signed the United Nations Global Compact, is truly embracing Goal #17, Partnerships for the Goals to improve global access to employment opportunities across professions beyond the legal sector. As a global business law firm, they’re using the strength of their networks and convening power to help raise awareness of this issue and facilitate change. They’re making a greater collective impact by working alongside their clients, academic institutions, charities and NGOs. Through this collaboration, they’re demonstrating shared values to build relationships, and most importantly, leverage the different aspects of the solution that each participating organization can provide.

Similarly, Nixon Peabody’s innovative project around solar power is brilliant. Nixon Peabody lawyers, the District Department of Energy & Environment, Brookfield Properties, National Housing Trust Community Development Fund, Enterprise Community Partners, and Sol Systems formed a nonprofit entity called New Partners Community Solar Corporation. It deployed the first community solar installation on Washington D.C. commercial property. The generated energy benefits low-income tenants in the District of Columbia. Truly transformational.

In another example that illustrates collaboration within the industry, 11 of the most respected law firms in the United States have created a groundbreaking collaborative project called Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy, which will deliver pro bono legal services to clients who are driving sustainability transformation. Is your firm a member? If not, why?

What does holistic look like? Beyond pro bono and diversity and inclusion programs

In assessing our societal impact, it is not enough to think only of our pro bono work. We should not overlook that law firms can make a difference in the fee-earning work they do for and with clients as well. For example, take Freshfields, a signator of the UN Global Compact.

Its annual Global Business Forum gathers senior executives, thought leaders, and academics to discuss the existing and emerging issues that matter most to global businesses: Climate change and sustainable and equitable growth, resource scarcity, and corporate strategies on environmental, social and governance policy.

In early June 2019, Freshfields created a Chief Client Sustainability Officer role, and filled it with one of the firm’s partners. In a press release, the firm explained that they created the role because “Our clients want to be on the right side of history.” Freshfields is broadening the scope of its social responsibility efforts by listening to its clients and including them in the firm’s CSR strategy.

Linklaters, another signator of the UN Global Compact, beautifully captures the comprehensive, holistic view of CSR and sustainability with the following description of its program and efforts on the firm’s website:

For many years, we have been advising clients on undertaking business responsibly across climate change, sustainable real estate, risk and governance, anti-bribery and corruption, whistleblowing, and crisis management. The UN Global Compact and the UN Sustainable Development Goals now challenge us to consider how much more of our activity, whether fee-earning, pro bono or direct operations, influence these global priorities. … Not only does this include the more traditional themes of Pro Bono and community investment, Diversity and Environment, it also captures issues of human rights and modern slavery, working with suppliers, and fair dealings and ethics.”

Moving beyond what is “nice to do”

While “doing good” has been part of the ethos and DNA of the legal industry forever, most see it as a “nice-to-do”—something apart and separate from the firm’s strategic management decisions. Today, all businesses must act with social impact and sustainability in mind, including the professional services industry. These topics must be considered at the firm leadership level and shared transparently—internally and externally. Celebrate where the firm is doing well. Acknowledge where improvements can be made. And set out to work toward a more sustainable, socially responsible future. Collaborate with others for greater impact. Your employees, your clients, your vendors, and your business partners expect it. It’s not only a business imperative—it is now a global imperative.

Coming up In next edition’s article, I’ll share a profile of a firm in Lisbon, Portugal that lives and breathes the essence of what it truly means to be a transformational social impact firm.

For more information, read last month’s article about the maturity stages of a firm’s CSR program and how to assess your firm’s programs to determine how to best move toward a transformational social impact strategy.

If you’d like to measure your current program and create a transformational strategy, contact me at


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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