Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is on the agenda of most significant businesses worldwide. Increasingly, law firms are recognising the role that CSR plays in reputation building, recruitment and retention, and client relationships. It has become an area of specialisation and differentiation, enabling firms to ‘give back’ and engage with the broader community. An important question to ask in this context is ‘how does a firm’s pro bono legal program relate to and interact with its CSR program?’
Pro Bono vs Corporate Social Responsibility
The rationale for lawyers doing pro bono legal work is that each lawyer has an ethical professional responsibility to provide legal assistance to those who would not otherwise be able to access justice. A law firm’s core competence is legal advice and so a pro bono legal program should be at the core of a firm’s community engagement strategy. This is the service that lawyers are uniquely positioned to provide.
With this in mind, firms are urged to maintain their commitment to providing pro bono legal services when formulating, developing and implementing community assistance programs, and to maintain the primacy of their pro bono legal work externally to the program.
On the other hand, Corporate Social Responsibility is about the responsibility of the entity to society; a corporate, rather than individual, professional aspiration. For this reason, pro bono is best managed separately to CSR. However, the most effective firms leverage value from finding common and complementary features of their CSR and pro bono programs.
The key corporate or community responsibility of a firm is to help its lawyers fulfil their ethical obligation to do pro bono legal work. A structured and strategic approach to pro bono can then be extended to a firm’s broader community engagement program and strengthened through common and complementary goals.
The benefit of common and complementary goals
Often firms who have focused their Corporate Social Responsibility and pro bono programs on specific areas of unmet legal need have created a framework to integrate their pro bono legal work with their other community and philanthropic support programs (eg their CSR program).
For example, the Reconciliation Action Plans at Allens, Ashurst, Gilbert + Tobin and Herbert Smith Freehills have provided a context for these firms to combine their pro bono legal work targeted at assisting disadvantaged Indigenous members of the community with educational work, employment opportunities, policy and law reform advocacy, enterprise support through supplier diversity and procurement, and to provide a broad range of business support activities for emerging Indigenous enterprises.
This example shows that planning and implementing a program that is able to draw on the common goals of the firm’s CSR and pro bono programs make it more likely that the strategic goals of both programs will be achieved.