Get Set Go

In the first of a new Legal Practice Management Association column cultivating innovation in chambers, Stewart Thompson looks at corporate social responsibility at the Bar: going far or far to go?

Ten years ago, if a barrister wanted to take positive action on social responsibility, it was a personal matter, just for them.

Nothing was coordinated and no one talked much about it. A few years ago, in response to research evidencing the benefits of corporate, or chambers, social responsibility (CSR) to business, some sets started to wake up to the idea.

Why should we do CSR?

There are many valid reasons for doing CSR. Some chambers are more uninhibited than others, in declaring a desire for social justice, to make the world a better and more just place. Some are slightly more shy in their altruism. Others see it as making their set a more attractive place to work and to be a tenant. Others still look at the business case – the trend is that clients, and their clients, often have their own CSR policies and programmes, and may well expect chambers to have the same.

Maitland Chambers, for example, now has a busy programme of CSR activities, which includes building a relationship with Argyle Primary School, where 25 languages are spoken and the majority of pupils come from low-income families. Most of the children had rarely been outside the London Borough of Camden, so the set started by fundraising within chambers for a coach trip to Warwick Castle. The trip was a great success – the kids learned a lot, and produced a gorgeous book about the castle, which features proudly in the chambers reception. It is read more than most of the other publications on the coffee table! Maitland has repeated this every year since, funding trips to the Globe Theatre and Hampton Court too. We have put on debating workshops with the school and talked to the kids about being barristers.

We have also instituted a staff volunteering scheme; one paid day a year (split over many weeks) for staff to help with reading and numeracy at the school. This was, again, not difficult to justify: volunteering schemes are well-recognised as improving employee morale and retention.

Matrix Chambers is also well known for its CSR programme, operating in accordance with its 17 core values and investing in numerous projects particularly in the areas of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). It runs a charitable fund, which accepts applications for specific projects that promote access to justice, equality of opportunity, or a sustainable environment.

Citing the involvement of the set in FreeBar (the LGBT+ charity for the Bar) as an example of their key CSR projects, project manager Natalie Hearn comments: ‘If you are thinking about developing CSR in your chambers it would be remiss not have a strong focus on EDI. In many ways believing in the value of equality, diversity and inclusion are prerequisites for being involved in typical CSR activities (eg donating money to charity)’.

Serjeants’ Inn has also elected to pursue an EDI agenda, in particular with its close support of First 100 Years, the campaign to showcase the contribution of women to the law and to highlight female role models for young lawyers. Catherine Calder, Director of Client Care at the set and a founding trustee of the charity behind the campaign, points to studies such as the Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Social Responsibility, which found that 67% of respondents preferred to work for a socially responsible company. She notes that: ‘First 100 Years is a cause in which we all believe, but we are also alive to the advantages to chambers in terms of recruitment and retention – it makes strategic as well as social sense.’

CSR is not only about extra-curricular activity. For many sets, it is about their approach as an employer. For example, Outer Temple Chambers has created a funded 18 month pupillage which includes six months working at FRU and runs a scheme to offer refugees paid work experience and the possibility of employment. As a Disability Confident Employer (possibly the only such barristers chambers), the set values a diverse workforce and currently has an employee on the autistic spectrum placed by Westminster City Council. Christine Kings, Director at Outer Temple, said that staff and barristers recognise that they are privileged compared to so many people and they want to give something back to the community: ‘It adds value to what we do, it makes us proud to help and to be in a position to help. It’s also good for business.’

Funding is obviously crucial for any CSR work: three sets – One Essex Court, 3 Verulam Buildings and 39 Essex – together with many individual barristers are among the supporters who committed to making an annual contribution of at least £6,000 for three years leading up to JUSTICE’s 60th birthday this year.

Of course, CSR can also be effected through legal practice itself. Since its foundation in 1990, an aim of Doughty Street Chambers has been to promote human rights and civil liberties through the law. Its Business Development Director Maurice MacSweeney notes: ‘Our view is that social responsibility requires work for both the local and global community. Many of our cases involve issues of social justice, but some of our proudest work has been in seeking to have the death penalty abolished around the world. Our members, as well as friends at organisations like the Death Penalty Project and others at the Bar of course, have been involved in this work since the 60s and 70s in both constitutional appeals to the Privy Council as well as in domestic capital cases around the world. To be able to use the law to change the law, and to save lives, is an extraordinary privilege.’

A Cranfield School of Management study, The Business Case for being a Responsible Business, found that 79% of CFOs believed that environmental, social and governance programmes added value to the business by maintaining good corporate reputation and/or brand equity. In summary, the case for CSR is clear: a competitive advantage with clients, members, staff and beyond and direct and powerful benefits to society at large.

And it is becoming the rule rather than the exception. As John van der Luit-Drummond, editor of the UK Bar at The Legal 500, concludes: ‘Corporate social responsibility is increasingly a key ingredient considered by legal service decision makers. We know from our research of the legal market across various jurisdictions – especially the US – that in-house counsel are quizzing their instructing law firms on their CSR strategies, and in turn, in the UK, firms are asking chambers about their CSR policies. Sets must now take that into account, and if they don’t have a CSR strategy in place already, then they need to think about getting one.’

Contributor Stewart Thompson, Executive Committee of the Legal Practice Management Association

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Stewart Thompson

Chambers Director, Maitland Chambers, and Executive Committee of the Legal Practice Management Association