Are you pro-bono?

A partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus spoke to Will Hodges about how the legal sector is changing in its approach to CSR issues.

Like many people I am not exactly sure what Corporate Social Responsibility means, are you able to shed some more light on the issue?

I think CSR is fundamentally an entity accepting that they have a responsibility to carry out their principal role - in our case providing legal services to clients to the best of our ability - in a way that provides the most benefit indirectly to the people we affect in carrying out that job. Avoiding buzz words like 'sustainable', we accept that our principal goal is to be a succesful law firm but, equally, we recognise we must also achieve this aim in a way that creates the greatest level of benefit for the people we affect - first of all our clients, our employees and their families. We also have to consider our neighbours - as well as taking something out of the local community, we must also contribute positively to it. Finally, being a law firm, one of our key goals is to assist as much as we can in carrying out legal projects, and through offering our legal skills to the community at large. So it really is a philosophy with several directions and with lots of stakeholders and goals. Essentially, I view it as wanting to demonstrate to what we stand for: what kind of people we are and consequently what kind of firm we are. I want to demonstrate that we are people committed to exerting a positive influence on all those we affect. Some people might view this with a hint of cynicism given that ultimately we are City lawyers, not generally portrayed as being the most caring of professionals. But I think that this is a cliché and people who come to work at Freshfields are the kind of people who want to contribute to the society around them.

Why has there been such a rise in firms adopting CSR policies over the last few years?

Well, from a sociological perspective, I guess you can look back to the mentality of the baby-boomer generation - people who have concentrated their efforts on earning and getting ahead in the post-war era. The generation that has followed may have felt that it's their responsibility to give something back. From a corporate point of view, I think that although issues like climate change are relatively new in terms of the prominence they are now being given, people have been conscious for a long time that resources are not infinite and something needs to be done. Another strand of CSR is diversity, and I think that this is something which has been changing considerably for quite a while. Whereas in the 50s and 60s the vast majority of most professional workforces were male, and predominantly white men, over the last thirty years this has changed substantially and is still changing. People want to be providing a work place that permits all types of people to fulfil their potential. As such, CSR has not suddenly 'appeared' as a concept, instead all these various strands have come together over many years.

You mentioned diversity - have you personally seen a big development in this area during your time at Freshfields?

Absolutely, you could say that when I arrived in 1992, the majority of the people who had gone before me were Oxbridge educated with some exceptions. I think that within this 15-20 year period alone there has been a huge change, at least from where I'm sitting. Our ratio of male to female graduate recruits is now more or less 50:50. 20% of the trainees we recruit are also from ethnic minorities, which is something that has definitely increased over the last 2-3 years. We have increased the range of schools where we recruit and our current trainees have come from a spread of around 65 universities around the world. That's a much broader catchment than it used to be. Once you start looking in more diverse places you get a more diverse group of people and there has been no drop in quality as I always knew there wouldn't be. It is just a case of going out there and looking. The benefit of having a more diverse workforce is that it's more interesting, you can service more diverse clients in a way that they are comfortable with, and so everybody benefits. There is still a long, long way to go, however, and we haven't yet achieved all we want to from our diversity programmes. The key aim is encouraging people to apply - there are still sections of society who think it is a waste of their time to apply to City law firms like ours and we want to prove that this isn't the case.

Taking about graduates in particular, do you think university leavers really need to consider the CSR policies of a firm before they decide where to apply?

I think they should definitely consider it. It is an important part of a firm's culture - you might say that many firms practise it now so you can effectively use a CSR policy to differentiate between them. In a partnership where you can see that the partners are prepared and actively encouraging you to spend a proportion of your time, from the moment you get there you realise that it is a firm that isn't solely concentrated on a bottom number. I think you would be naïve not to recognise that CSR does have a role to play in attracting business, but equally, from a graduate's point of view, you can see that there are other issues which are important to a firm's ethos and to the people who work there. If you feel that community and pro-bono work is important to you then this is certainly something to consider when applying.

Pro-bono work is an area which I imagine is particularly attractive to prospective employees, how easy is it for trainees to get involved in this kind of work?

First of all, it's not compulsory as it is in the US. People don't have to do it, though it's available to everyone, including trainees, and around 30% of the lawyers at the firm chose to take part. There are a range of different projects we are involved in at any one time, from going to work at a community-based law centre such as the one we work with in Tower Hamlets, right through to preparing briefs to assist the court in public litigation. We have assisted with death penalty briefs; we have worked on briefs surrounding torture cases involving the Guantanamo Bay cases. This represents a massive commitment on our part but I think people at the firm benefit hugely from being involved in this kind of work as they get to assist in different kinds of cases, and get a different sense of achievement than they get in their day to day work. All in all, I think there is something to get out of it for everybody who is involved. The only issue is for people, a busy associate say, being able to fit this in around their other responsibilities. We have managed to deal with this by not separating the two in terms of our internal recording for hours so that, as a partner, I can give a pro-bono case to somebody which will then count equally towards their weekly hours just as much as their work on a corporate case would.

Given the current economic climate, do you expect the amount of pro-bono and community work which is carried out by City firms will be significantly affected?

No, I have thought long and hard about it, and we will have to be a bit smarter about how we go about doing this kind of work. Ultimately, however, any company or firmcan undertake these sorts of projects when times are good but I think if you generally aspire to be a leader in this field and are committed to it you will carry on regardless through the difficult times. Another thing to consider is that people will perhaps now have more time to dedicate to pro-bono and community work than they did during the boom years. It might be a good opportunity for people to get involved who might not previously have had the chance. If anything, in these difficult economic times, it is more important to pursue socially responsible policies.