The good guide

The profile of corporate social responsibility within law firms has increased.
Husnara Begum examines the issues

The good guideLaw firm graduate recruitment teams are a pretty demanding bunch. Ask them what they look for in candidates and they will often come up with a list of criteria that is longer than your arm. Recruitment, however, is a two-way process, so do not just focus on what firms want from you throw in some demands of your own. For instance, have you ever questioned what the firm you are applying to stands for and what its core values are?

The term corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been around for a decade or so. But in recent years it has become increasingly important, with some firms now incorporating CSR into their graduate recruitment strategies. For example, as first reported on (24 October), at this years law fairs White & Case decided to ditch freebies in favour of a donation to charity, while national firm Addleshaw Goddard has been handing out information packs promoting its dedicated CSR website as well as pencil cases made from recycled tyres.

Marcus Jamieson-Pond, the CSR manager at Addleshaws, says: Feedback from students shows that theres a genuine concern that businesses operate in an ethical and sustainable way.

If our position on CSR has a resonance with students when theyre considering a particular employer, then theyre probably the type of people whod thrive in our firm.

Jamieson-Ponds comments are echoed in a report entitled Managing Tomorrows People, published in July 2007 by big four accountant PricewaterhouseCoopers. The report found that 71.2 per cent of graduates in the UK said they would deliberately work for employers whose stances on CSR reflected their own values.

CSR make-up
CSR is all about an organisations pledge to making a difference to its staff and the community in which it operates. The former typically includes a firms commitment to areas such as diversity, flexible working and work-life balance. The latter, meanwhile, covers everything from promoting human rights to working with local schools and colleges, and even running soup kitchens for the homeless. A number of firms also incorporate pro bono activities into their CSR programmes, while others extend it to external partners, such as clients and key suppliers.

Like many of its City rivals, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has an extensive CSR programme, which includes initiatives to help the homeless, such as its Ready for Work scheme, through which around 118 homeless people have gained work experience at the firm. In late October Freshfields also announced a three-year sponsorship of Shelters new Childrens Legal Service. In addition to donating more than 232,000 to the charity over the course of the three years, the firm will also provide extensive pro bono legal support to the initiative.

Elsewhere, volunteers from Freshfields also help children at a primary school in Tower Hamlets with their reading and numeracy skills and mentor GCSE students at a school in Hackney. Freshfields also works with a number of human rights charities, including Amicus, Justice and Reprieve.

As part of its CSR programme Addleshaws works with the charity Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses with help from the homeowner families through voluntary labour and donations of money and materials. In another attempt to bring CSR and graduate recruitment closer together Addleshaws flew its future trainees out to Romania to work with Habitat for Humanity in August.

Trainee Alex Griffiths was one of the trainees who travelled to Romania. The trip was his first experience of how CSR initiatives work at Addleshaws, so naturally he was excited to see what was involved. He says he found the experience very rewarding because the team pulled together to get the work done.

We also got to meet the people whod be living in the houses we were building and speak with them about their lives, explains Griffiths. They were lovely people who welcomed us into their homes and this demonstrated in a very real sense what our work meant to them.

It was also a great chance to meet more of my future colleagues in what was a fun and vibrant environment.

Incidentally, if you want to find out more about Griffiths time in Romania, you can read his blog from the trip in the archives.

Green initiatives
These days CSR also includes an organisations commitment to protecting the environment by, for example, reducing its carbon footprint. This can be quite a challenge for some law firms due to their geographic reaches. Nevertheless, some firms are making genuine attempts to become carbon-neutral. Freshfields, for instance, became the first carbon-neutral magic circle firm in October.

According to The Lawyer magazines first-ever carbon emission league table, published in July 2007, Freshfields and Addleshaws had the lowest carbon emission counts at 5.8 tonnes per lawyer and 8.7 tonnes per lawyer respectively, when compared with other top 20 firms. The two firms CO2 counts are way below the bulk of the other top 20 firms, with Linklaters registering 16.6 tonnes of emission per lawyer for its UK operations alone and CMS Cameron McKenna inflicting 14.07 tonnes of CO2 per lawyer for the UK and Central and Eastern Europe areas. SJ Berwin finished top of the chart with an astonishing 19.2 tonnes per lawyer, although the firm claims that it offsets the entire amount.

Clifford Chance, the UKs largest firm, and Ashurst do not measure their carbon footprints, while Eversheds is in the throes of its first carbon emission audit.

Although asking firms how many tonnes of carbon they emit per year may put an interviewer on the spot, Addleshaws Jamieson-Pond advises against simply asking for facts and figures, because without an idea of what good looks like they do not prove a great deal.

A better question, therefore, would be to ask firms what steps they are taking to protect the environment. For example, if a firm you are interested in applying to is relocating, why not ask its graduate recruitment team what features its new building has to protect the environment?

For example, Norton Roses new building will consume just 44 per cent of the energy that a typical office building would consume. The firm has also negotiated an agreement to buy green electricity to power the building.

Additionally, it is putting in place new infrastructure to step up its green efforts, such as motion sensors to switch off lights.

Is it local?
It is relatively easy to find out information about the types of CSR activities a firm is involved with. There is no obligation for firms to disclose this information, although most firms will have CSR sections in their corporate websites and indeed in their graduate recruitment literature, while others such as Addleshaws have dedicated websites.

If you talk to firms about their offerings to the local community, Jamieson-Pond warns that there is always a danger they may be selling a story. He therefore suggests you ask how many days of a firms time would you be given to undertake volunteering and whether this would count towards your bonus? Firms stances on this issue vary. Some will count community and/or pro bono towards a lawyers chargeable hours target, while others will have more informal or ad hoc arrangements.

If I were a student Id want to see how I could get involved and have my bright ideas considered and brought to life, explains Jamieson-Pond. Id also like to see how the firms working with others to make positive changes. For example, would I be able to work alongside clients on joint projects? Finally, I think Id probably ask the person interviewing me what they had personally done to support their firms CSR programme.

Indeed, the opportunity to get involved in CSR activities is one of the biggest draws for graduates. Since joining Wragge & Co, trainee Chris OConnell has had his hands full with projects in the local community.

I helped out with an activity day where children from a local school for the visually impaired came to the office for the day, relates OConnell. Activities included mock interviews and meetings with people around the firm.

OConnell also helped to organise a trainee awayday, which involved turning a 200sq m overgrown allotment into a barked area with raised flowerbeds and a sand pit for the local SureStart community centre. Additionally, he is the trainee representative on Wragges eco-team, which is charged with making the firm more environmentally friendly.

You feel very proud when events go well and the people involved have really enjoyed it, enthuses OConnell. You learn about different people and their abilities, circumstances and lives, which helps you to understand people better and to learn not to make assumptions or stereotype people.

Starting early
CSR does not have to begin at the workplace, however. Indeed, there is an increasing number of opportunities for you to get involved with community projects while still at university. Addleshaws Griffiths, who was the University of Nottingham Law Society president, oversaw a number of charitable events run through one of its subsidiaries, the Pro Bono Society.

Wed go to a number of underprivileged areas and examine a wide range of legal problems. Wed discuss the various options open to the clients and attempt to resolve the situation in a pragmatic manner, which took account of issues such as cost, time and the strength of their legal position, explains Griffiths.

As well as getting involved with law-related CSR activities at university, Griffiths also organised a number of other charitable projects, including a bungee jump, which raised more than 1,000 for an Eastern European orphanage.

All these extracurricular activities served to broaden and greatly enhance my experience at university and its from doing things like these that I hope to maintain an involvement in charity work into the future during my time as a practising solicitor, says Griffiths.

Some of the students Lawyer 2B spoke to while researching this feature admit that, when applying for training contracts, CSR was not necessarily high on their wish lists.

One concedes that, in an environment where securing a training contract is so competitive, candidates cannot be too fussy.

However, most of the students say that if they were fortunate enough to land more than one offer, then CSR, especially a firms commitment to green issues, may sway their decisions.

As one student puts it: In an environment where theres so much money sloshing around, working for a firm thats giving some of it back to the community is going to be far more rewarding.

Commitment to its workforce, the local community and the environment will tell you quite a lot about the culture that prevails within a firm. So when you are researching firms do not forget to look beyond the glossy brochure and the financial rewards on offer. And if a firm has a poor track record, do not be afraid to challenge it.