The answer to having a recognised and valued role in society will not be found in seeking to convince an unsuspecting public that lawyers, particularly publicly-funded ones, should be fairly remunerated for the work they do. The answer lies in lawyers demonstrating their worth, values and relevance through the way they conduct themselves and manage their businesses.
Any observer of the business world in recent years will have noticed a leviathan, growing across most industries and sectors, and changing the way that companies structure themselves and go about their activities; there can be little doubt that we are living in the age of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
First and foremost, what is it? What does it mean for businesses? Is it a force for good and if so, is it something the Bar needs to be paying greater attention to?
As a concept, CSR, as a term, first sprung up around 50 years ago and operates as a form of self-regulation to ensure that businesses are better aware of, and more actively managing, the impact they have on the communities they operate within. It is not a new phenomenon. In recent years, those less engaged with the process have probably seen CSR as the touchy-feely side of a business, probably just to curry favour with the outside world. There is often suspicion around it. The stereotype is sometimes the international corporate which seeks to deflect attention from its business in parts of the world which are seen as controversial, by investing in another. Whilst this cannot be said to be wholly without merit, it is far from the full story. A more considered interpretation would suggest three clear strands to CSR; philanthropy, sustainability and responsibility. All of these can enhance the way in which any organisation is run, for the good of its consumers, its owners or shareholders and the community it operates within.
Philanthropy is a core element of CSR. It gives businesses an opportunity to make a positive and tangible additional contribution to society. It codifies what the charitable contribution of a business as a whole is, and measures its impact. That may be through pro bono services, it may be relationships with local charities or schools, it might be developing or sponsoring particular programmes or activities which in turn help people understand their business or industry in their local area. This is an area in which the Bar already excels. A recent Bar Council CSR survey of barristers showed that over 50% of respondents gave up more than one working day a month to do voluntary work to benefit others, and over 40% said they did legal pro bono work. In so many ways, forms of CSR are already engrained in the Bar’s DNA. It has just never used that term.
However, there is a great deal more to CSR than philanthropy. Many businesses will have values or mission statements, often prominently advertised on their websites. They will talk about concepts like excellence, ethics, responsibility, sustainability and the environment. It’s hard to tell them apart sometimes. But the key question is not what an organisation says its values are. The question is whether those values are reflected in its processes and working practices. Take a company which says it believes in respecting the environment and expresses its belief that businesses should be sustainable. Does it have recycling bins throughout its offices? Does it print on sustainable printing stocks? Does it have its lights on timers to save energy? Does it order Fair Trade coffee? Does it vet all of its suppliers to ensure their values, as far as possible, mirror its own? If not, can that ‘value’ be said to be anything more than a marketing tool?
Let’s say the company does all those things. It sounds like a bit of a hassle. So why are so many of the world’s leading companies doing exactly this? Not as a fleeting gesture but as a concerted and long-term strategic commitment. Because it’s just good business. It brings costs down, because the company is wasting less and is more conscious of its consumption and ‘footprint’. Clients with similar values ask about it in tenders and when allocating work; it disposes them more favourably to those companies. It sets a positive example within the societies the companies work within. And this is all voluntary activity. Translating positive values into how an organisation does business is a good thing. It’s good for society, good for the clients and consumers of the organisation, and good for the organisation which will probably be better thought of – and more profitable.
Running a sustainable business is, again, more than a promotional tool. It can defend and protect a company against various risks. Compliance and other forms of internal self-regulation fulfil a dual function. First, to meet external imperatives, such as meeting the needs of shareholders or other stakeholders. Second, to necessitate more ethical dealing and have systems in place to stamp out overtly risky or irresponsible activities, at a corporate or individual level. Consumers benefit because the internal mechanisms of the company are working to ensure a better and more thoroughly inspected product.
Whether philanthropic, sustainable or responsible, CSR, at the heart of a business model, is better for the business and for its users. It also has the potential to be a broader force for good.
There are some leading examples of chambers which have recognised the importance of CSR in their working practices and corporate identity. Some, like the Bar Council, are members of the City of London’s CSR programme, ‘Heart of the City’, which brings organisations together to share best practice and professionalise their entire approach to the issue.
As a modernising profession (albeit sometimes reluctantly), this is a vital area of development for the Bar; crucial to its relevance and perhaps survival. Its credentials may be beyond reproach in some quarters, but by its nature, the Bar is a deeply individualistic profession. Its pro bono services stand up as well, or probably better, than any other predominantly self-employed profession. Its commitment to widening access to the profession and working with schools to promote good citizenship should be a source of great pride. The Bar Council recently drew together think tanks and citizenship groups to discuss the Bar’s role in society, and it emphasised both its importance but also how much more can be done to publicise it.
It needs to be codified and better measured. As tendering for blocks of, in particular, private work, the Bar will increasingly be expected to meet the CSR requirements of the tenderer.
The Bar is a profession which has always been built on its integrity and ethics. It has never felt the need to shout about it. But in the meantime, the corporate world has stolen a march. The Bar has much it can talk positively of, but it needs to draw the diverse strands together and package them effectively.
If the Bar wants to convince the public it matters, it has nothing to fear from showing them the intensely public spirit at the core of the Bar’s ethos. That is the most effective path to success. But for too long, it has been an elephant in the room, which the Bar has consistently failed to recognise.
It is the Bar’s time to take the message out positively and eagerly. Others may have a head-start, but they have left a helpful trail. Now it is the Bar’s time to shine.
Toby Craig is the Head of Communications at the Bar Council