Head of Group Litigation Jacqueline Young highlights the commercial benefits and legal ramifications of CSR.
The distinction between a litigation funder and a law firm is not as stark as you might think. Almost 50 per cent of the Augusta workforce is in fact made up of lawyers. Whilst statistics show that BAME and female lawyers are adequately represented in the legal profession, this obscures the fact that there is significant under representation at partner or management level, particularly within large corporate practices. I have been very fortunate in my professional life to have only worked in organisations which embrace and value diversity. At Augusta, females represent 50 per cent of the business and many of the senior roles such as CEO, COO, GC and several heads of department are occupied by women. Augusta signed on to The Law Society’s Women in Law Pledge in June 2019, which is an initiative to uncover and overcome barriers to women’s career progression in the legal sector. Recognition and appreciation of diversity is a core value at Augusta.
The benefits of a diversified legal sector have been widely recognised. Studies have shown that businesses perform better financially with a more diverse workforce. Diversity breeds innovation and flexibility of approach, born from different backgrounds, perspectives and traditions. Technology facilitating globalisation means that law firms now have a wider talent pool for recruitment and a more diverse workforce is better placed to cater to the needs of global clients.
In recognition of the benefits of diversification, there have been major strides made within the legal profession, although there is still some way to go.
Recruitment processes must be the starting point. Outdated and flawed recruitment policies (such as only recruiting Oxbridge candidates) must be shunned and replaced with the recognition that considering at a wider talent pool will in fact yield better results. Firms should establish mentoring and networking to champion diversity within their organisation. The power of a role model should not be underestimated – role models can inspire and motivate. Significantly, a role model can banish the notion of a ‘glass ceiling’ and is demonstrable proof that talent is seen and recognised, in whatever form it is presented.
The fact that diversity is now firmly on the agenda for the legal sector has encouraged greater awareness and discussion. This is key to progress, as it helps address the most difficult of barriers – unconscious bias. Organisations should provide training for staff about how unconscious bias can manifest itself in a business context. This, in turn, creates an environment where issues can be discussed and addressed more freely.
CSR is a rather amorphous concept. Businesses are encouraged to be socially accountable and to positively contribute to the public, economy or environment. Whether a business takes part is up to them and should they choose to engage, they can do so in the manner and to the extent they wish. Striving to be a ‘good corporate citizen’ is undoubtedly a noble ideal and one that has certainly received traction in the legal profession. In particular, larger firms boast of extensive CSR policies that broadly cover community giving, pro bono advice, equality, diversity and inclusion, and environment and sustainability.
However, it is worth remembering that CSR is not just a concept but can create legal obligations. Often, CSR initiatives are encapsulated in codes of conduct which become central to a business’ risk management and professional reputation. Members of staff can be required to comply with aspects of these codes or face disciplinary proceedings or dismissal. Similarly, law firms are increasingly being asked by their clients to demonstrate their ethical stance, as set out in firm-wide policies. Adherence to certain codes or policies can be incorporated into the terms of engagement and so become ‘contractualised’. A failure to adhere to CSR policies can be relied upon as evidence of unreasonable, unethical or reckless behaviour on the part of the law firm. Even when the code is not legally enforceable, a breach of it may still engender legal consequences. For example, a breach of code may be used as evidence in legal proceedings that the party responsible for the breach has acted unreasonably, unethically or recklessly. Such are the ramifications of a CSR policy, that a firm must give careful thought to risk management to avoid or mitigate such risks. What might have started out as an ambition to make a difference to the broader community, provide for a happier work force or simply to keep up with competitors, a firm can be held accountable for a failure to adhere to specific codes.
Embracing CSR is laudable, and studies have revealed that companies with evolved CSR policies actually benefit commercially as a result of stronger talent attraction and higher employee retention, better productivity, and more sustainable usage of resources. However, businesses must uphold the ideals they set themselves, or risk considerable reputational damage and possible legal ramifications.
My advice to anyone starting out in the field would be to be positive, work hard and don’t be afraid to ask what you don’t know. There is an inherent need to seek approval during the infancy of your career and this can inhibit your ability to own what you don’t know, which in turn obstructs the learning process. Know your worth and don’t underestimate the potency of youth and/or inexperience – you bring an open mind, curiosity, drive and ambition. In relation to female or BAME practitioners, I would add that whilst the legal profession has historically ill-served you, the world is slowly changing, and you are part of the transformation. Don’t anticipate prejudice but have the confidence to call it out should you see it. Be true to yourself and never seek to moderate your behaviour to either align or distance yourself from any perceived stereotype. Good luck!