How and why: CSR at the Bar

Cynical business ploy or socially responsible purpose? Sam Mercer asked four leading sets how and why they do CSR…

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an approach to business that promotes ethical practices and socially responsible behaviour and contributes to sustainable development. At the Bar, we can use the term ‘Chambers Social Responsibility’. Happily the acronym for these types of activities is the same; and is certainly familiar to the corporate, government and local authority clients who are increasingly asking chambers about their policies that promote ethical practices, their socially responsible behaviour and their approach to sustainable development.

Many chambers already support the communities they serve through pro bono, working with local schools and charities, often through the links of individual members. Some chambers run energy or paper-saving initiatives to reduce their environmental impact. Many also go above and beyond that which is required with respect to equality & diversity, and have started working on wellbeing. Yet many are not taking full advantage of their work on this agenda. In 2018 the Bar Council looked at 201 chambers’ websites. We could easily find information about socially responsible activity on 33 websites, but under a wide range of headings (31 of these reported on community activity; 18 on workplace activity, 16 on environmental activity and just four reported on activity relating to suppliers and/or clients). If your prospective clients and pupils/staff can’t easily see what you are doing, then you – and the Bar as a whole – won’t benefit as much as you should.

"Kings Chambers have been instrumental in helping us to raise funds, to develop our network and to provide us with inspiration for events and activities. Families affected by childhood acquired brain injury have benefitted from their commitment and effort. Our gratitude is heartfelt" - Child Brain Injury Trust

In advance of the launch of a CSR network for the Bar (and a Bar Council/Chancery Bar Association workshop) at the Annual Bar Conference on 24 November the Bar Council interviewed some of the members and staff at four leading sets: Maitland Chambers (Laurie Scher); Doughty Street Chambers (Mark Dembovsky); Outer Temple Chambers (Shiraz Oshidar); and Kings Chambers (Debra Andrés), about their approach to CSR and advice on what, and what not, to do.

What aspect of your CSR work are you most proud of, and why?

Debra: …charity fundraising and work with students. We have raised tens of thousands of pounds over the past few years through our association with the Child Brain Injury Trust and the Wood Street Mission, a Manchester-based charity... while our activity with students has helped several young people get into the legal sector.

Laurie: Firstly, introducing the living wage for everyone who works with us, including cleaning contractors. They are often overlooked: many chambers don’t think about how much the cleaners are paid because they are not direct employees, but it is important to try to ensure they are paid a proper wage and have a better quality of life. And secondly, the close relationship Maitland has developed with the Argyle School. It is special to have such a relationship. I think every chambers who can, should link up with a school; it does a lot of good for the children, and doing things like a debating session with the kids is a wonderful break if you are working non-stop.

Mark: The passion with which our staff and members approach CSR [has] become an integral aspect of who a Doughty Street person is.

"Maitland Chambers’ support has enabled us to run educational visits that would otherwise be out of reach financially... For the children to see barristers debating as part of their work is something that really brings debating to lifeand gives a sense of purpose to our discursive writing back in class… [And] every child who has read with a volunteer has made accelerated progress … and gone off to secondary school a much more confident and enthusiastic reader" - Argyle School

How is CSR organised in your chambers?

Debra: Kings Chambers has had a formal CSR policy since 2013. For many years members have been involved in various CSR activities as individuals, but we identified a need to collate information about those activities as a first step prior to Chambers starting to focus on specific projects. All members and staff are regularly updated on Chambers CSR activity via our internal monthly newsletter.

Mark: We have a formal corporate giving programme with a structured committee reviewing requests and proactively identifying areas of Doughty Street involvement. On an annual basis we identify a range of projects for active involvement and larger support compared with those with which we have a more ‘light touch’ interaction.

Laurie: At Maitland, our activity evolved organically, from a collection of CSR initiatives already in place at the suggestion of various members. We gathered them together on a page on our website, then formed a working group (to keep things moving), which is now formalising into a committee.

Shiraz: At Outer Temple, though we’ve been doing CSR for over nine years, we now report on aspects in our annual report, particularly where there’s a work-related dimension like equality & diversity and sponsorship of health-related charities – which can also support marketing activity. We don’t have a formal CSR committee.

What are the less obvious benefits, in addition to those you would expect – attracting and motivating members, pupils and staff, building loyalty and goodwill, and supporting individual wellbeing?

Mark: CSR is a great ‘leveller’. Learning about each other and working together leads to improved communication and sense of team.

Laurie: CSR makes chambers a better place to work. It’s energising for members to express their passion for social as well as legal justice.

Shiraz: There’s the opportunity for barristers to do more complex cases and/or appear before High Court judges in pro bono cases. There’s now greater awareness of equality and diversity through working with social mobility schemes and having refugees and people with disabilities employed in chambers.

Debra: CSR encourages members of chambers to look beyond the narrow horizons of their daily work and to see how their own role fits within the community.

Laurie: I also think CSR provides pupils, tenants and staff with another reason to apply to us. People do care about CSR type activity, and it features in decision making processes when you think about where you want to work.

Shiraz: There are occasional marketing opportunities through fundraising; we invited professional clients to a photo exhibition fundraiser for Action Aid and an artwork evening for Headway–we raised significant sums and the clients loved it.

"Refugees have a lot to offer but find it difficult to get into the labour market, and working at Outer Temple gives them the opportunity to gain new skills and acquire references which all act as a stepping stone for clients’ development and future careers" - Refugee Council

Have you ever been challenged on the costs associated with a CSR activity?

Shiraz: We’ve never been challenged but we make limited financial commitment. Nearly all our activity is about giving time, expertise, or using the facilities we already have.

Laurie: We are very careful to ensure there is a strong business case for any central funds spent. For example, there is a business case for Living Wage (although I think the moral case is more compelling). Developing a business case ensures there is no commercial reason to criticise the limited costs associated with an initiative. When something is purely charitable, that should emphatically be on an ‘opt in’ basis, where anyone who wants to contribute can do so – and acknowledging that they may legitimately prefer to focus on other causes.

Sam Mercer is Head of Policy: Equality & Diversity and CSR at the Bar Council. With thanks to Maitland Chambers (Laurie Scher), Doughty Street (Mark Dembovsky), Outer Temple (Shiraz Oshidar & Christine Kings) and Kings (Debra Andrés) for sharing their experiences.


How to get started with CSR

For information on how to get started, see: www.barcouncil.org.uk/supporting-the-bar/csr/
If you are interested in joining the CSR network at the Bar, to share experience and access advice from others, or for more information on CSR, please get in touch: smercer@barcouncil.org.uk
The Bar Council and the Chancery Bar Association are running a CSR workshop at the Annual Bar Conference on 24 November


What Maitland, Doughty Street, Outer Temple and Kings consider as ‘CSR’…

  • pro bono work, eg via the Bar Pro Bono Unit; CLIPS; ELIPS
  • supporting external organisations (legal and non-legal) including the Free Representation Unit, Transparency International and Mary Ward Legal Centre
  • fundraising/sponsorship eg the Spinal Injuries Association; Headway; Action Aid; London Legal Walk; Macmillan coffee mornings; cake sales for individual staff and members’ good causes including a range of sporting/other activities for charity
  • hosting events by making chambers facilities available to charities and other organisations
  • partnerships with local schools (visits/mentoring/work experience/fundraising for school trips/coaching in debating)
  • providing jobs in chambers for disadvantaged people eg someone with autism, or refugees (via the Refugee Council)
  • generous parental leave and financial support
  • wellbeing, eg giving staff time to redevelop our garden into a positive sanctuary of community, communication and interaction
  • treating our cleaning contractors fairly by paying the living wage
  • monitoring recycling and waste
  • promoting cycling to work (providing space and facilities)
  • default setting printers to print double sided
  • ensuring computers, printers etc turn off automatically

Some tips: advice on what to do and what not to do…

Shiraz:

DO 

  • Engage senior leaders. Senior people need to take a lead, encourage and support activity to embed it into a chambers’ culture.
  • Check if you need to draft new policies to support activity eg staff time off to volunteer or when chambers premises can be used by others.
  • Work on things people are already interested in. If people in Chambers already have an interest and want to share it – that’s a good place to start.

DON’T

  • Draft a CSR policy and then hope something will happen.
  • Decide what CSR activity is appropriate for chambers and then tell everyone about it.
  • Expect change overnight…
Mark:

DON'T

  • Try to do too much. Start with a few targeted projects and stick with them for enough time to see the impact of your investment
Laurie:

DO

  • Start with low hanging fruit. Many small initiatives require relatively little investment and can make a huge impact on people’s lives.

DON'T

  • Best to avoid imposing charitable obligations or telling people they should or shouldn’t do something. The motivation for CSR activity must be personal and intrinsic: if someone doesn’t want to get involved it must be a valid choice for them to make. For CSR, there must be either a business case, or a personal choice; you can’t impose your view of a good charity or suitable activity onto other people.
  • Don’t start from scratch. There is loads of help available from organisations like theheartofthecity.com.
  • Guidance includes advice in how to build a business case. There is also a growing network of interested and experienced individuals willing to share their best practice.
Debra:

DO

  • Pool resources. With education activities, Chambers can be more effective in organising if members focus on one or two areas, such as visits to schools, or running mooting competitions.
  • Partner with charities. This is a good way of focusing CSR activity within Chambers. Choose charities that fit with your Chambers work profile and also those in the local community. Consider whether you might want to focus on one or two charities for say five years, or to change your partner charity every year.
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Sam Mercer

Sam has been Head of Equality and Diversity at the Bar Council since June 2013.