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Limbers, Lucy --- "Social conscience - a legal responsibility" [2002] AltLawJl 9; (2002) 27(1) Alternative Law Journal 29

Social conscience — a legal responsibility

LUCY LIMBERS[*] interviews a managing partner, GARY FLOWERS[#], about corporate philanthropy and the legal profession.

Modern day law firms are very much commercial entities. They are challenged daily by the need to compete in a growing market of legal service providers and to meet client expectations that are often unrealistic. Where does pro bono work fit into this picture? This interview puts these questions to Gary Flowers, the national Managing Partner of a Sydney Law Firm. It represents a dialogue in the growing debate on the role of corporate philanthropy in the law profession.

LL: The idea of corporate social responsibility has in a sense come back into vogue with policies such as the Federal Government’s notion of a social coalition. But the traditional idea of philanthropy is now more broadly defined. What does it mean for lawyers?

GF: I guess there are two ways you can look at what constitutes corporate philanthropy. In the narrow or more traditional definition for lawyers, it comprises legal work done without charge for whomever you might identify as being in need.

In a sense, this is more personal and harder to integrate into the social contributions of an organisation. Lawyers usually do pro bono work off their own bat and on a one-to-one basis. But having said that, there is significant need out there for this type of work. ‘Personal plight’ cases in criminal and family law feature most frequently in the statistics on legal pro bono work.

However, it is quite rare for these requests to come through to larger firms, obviously, due to the structure and the nature of commercial practices. Instead, large firms usually allocate resources to community justice centres — like sending one or two lawyers on secondment for 6 months. This is a more effective way for large firms to take part in personal plight pro bono work.

Moreover, gaining casework experience in criminal and family law is not irrelevant to the staff of a larger firm. While it’s a community responsibility, it also provides good training to young lawyers.

LL:What are the figures like on legal pro bono?

GF: Well there was a report released in August 2000 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the legal profession’s patterns of practice etc. According to the report, solicitors donated around 1.8 million hours and barristers a further 489,000 hours doing pro bono work in 1998/99. Then there is legal aid, which further broadens access to justice but I think it’s interesting to look at what is done by the private sector on a voluntary basis. It gives you a better indication of what the business community’s sense of social responsibility is really like.

LL: So what is the second definition of corporate philanthropy?

GF: The broader definition, which is more in keeping with the workings of large legal practices, includes all forms of corporate social responsibility.

This is where business practices and philanthropy meet in a more deliberated way. I think it’s in this integration of philanthropy into core business objectives that Australian corporate culture is changing more noticeably.

Corporate social responsibility is becoming more and more a part of a corporation’s identity, rather than just a figure on its balance sheet.

It’s a more structured approach, which can be better integrated into a corporation’s culture and standard practices.

I saw the broader approach to philanthropy working well for a legal firm I visited in the United States. They called it a ‘community support program’ and it has a stronger societal focus, and allows more staff to be involved.

LL: Why was this better?

GF: The community support program went beyond legal support. So the results were further reaching too and not purely legal. They were working with an entire disadvantaged community to improve young people’s education outcomes, social resources and access to justice where needed. The firm also carried out a few landmark legal suits as part of the program.

I think that, while you could give random financial support to a larger number of charities, this is not as effective and can become tokenism. Our preferred way to go is to engage in one or two select, ongoing relationships with community groups. This type of philanthropy is more strategic and less ‘ad hoc’. It also allows a legal firm to use all their resources — not just legal — such as with the partnership between Sparke Helmore and Patrick Rafter’s Cherish the Children Foundation. That’s a good case study of a diversified ongoing contribution.

So, in the next 12 months we intend to follow the US example by structuring and better resourcing this partnership, including the provision of some of our Brisbane office space for the Cherish the Children Foundation to use, as well as providing them with ongoing legal and human resource services. This is more holistic and perhaps more in keeping with the revived notion of corporate social responsibility advocated by the Howard government.

LL: Do lawyers or legal firms have more social responsibility than other professionals because of the service ideal that characterises the legal profession?

GF: The legal profession has always had a strong sense of social welfare about it. Lawyers do see community service as part of what goes with the profession. You see this throughout the profession — in smaller and rural practices as well. Most lawyers carry out pro bono legal work in their own time at a fairly constant rate throughout their professional lives. It’s not a marketing ploy — but seen rather as something integral to a normal lawyer’s workload at various stages.

While law firms run as a business, at the end of the day they are a service. They have a duty to clients.

In a sense, the revival in business of the notion of social responsibility these days is nothing new for the legal profession, while it may be for the some of the business sector.

LL: In 2000, the Attorney-General established a Legal Pro Bono Taskforce to examine the whole issue of social responsibility and philanthropy within the legal profession. In the subsequent report to the Attorney-General handed down last year, it was stated, ‘... law firms, (of all sizes and practice types) need to develop and maintain a healthy “pro bono culture” — and in this regard, all of the evidence suggests that the attitude of senior partners is critical in setting the right tone’.

Pro bono ‘culture’ denotes more of a voluntary attitude and has to be unprompted. How do you formally foster something, which is essentially informal?

GF: In any organisation, things have to be driven from the top down, not the bottom up. In any area, the partners have to set the tone. But something like social responsibility doesn’t come as an imposition to staff anyway. To the contrary, an organisation that is more driven by the triple bottom line is attractive to employees. It’s really a question of being the ‘employer of choice’.

LL: Does the pursuit of these intangible goals detract from achieving financial targets?

GF: At the end of the day, social responsibility, staff morale and business profits are not mutually exclusive as some economists affirm. There has been considerable, ongoing debate about the relationship between the social and financial objectives of business. There are those who say that the former don’t exist at all — that the only duty of business is to generate profit.

The key is that there shouldn’t be any element of conflict between these goals, but rather a mutual benefit among them. Financial profits are enhanced when a firm’s social responsibility is given attention. This is for a range of reasons — morale, profile, and productivity.

LL: Back to fostering a culture of pro bono. Are young lawyers socially minded or are they over-ambitious and slightly too focused on getting ahead in their career? Volunteerism for example is said to be a fading phenomenon from a previous generation.

GF: I actually think younger lawyers have a strong social conscience. It is not hard to foster volunteerism at all. If anything, they outdo the previous generation in this regard. They are values-driven and easier to motivate — I think this could be the product of a different education system with greater emphasis on environmental and social awareness. I think the 1980’s image of capitalist greed in young professionals is not as prevalent today.

LL: In the United States, they make sure lawyers are socially minded, by setting a quota of hours every lawyer must spend on pro bono work if they want to be professionally accredited. Is this contradictory to what you are saying? Does it stifle a real culture of social responsibility?

GF: Again the danger here is tokenism. However, I don’t see that the two things are incongruous. Setting a quota of hours may serve as a reminder or a framework for the individual to work within.

The whole area of social responsibility is becoming more formalised. It doesn’t mean we have to go down the path of quota hours, but I think businesses are becoming smarter in the way they plan and contribute to communities. The investment is better and far more effective.

I go back to the point — when a firm takes its social responsibility seriously and thinks it through, the flow-on effects both to staff, profit and the community are better. There’s no conflict.

[*] Lucy Limbers is a Senior Consultant for communications and research firm, Henderson Parker.

© 2002 Lucy Limbers

[#] Gary Flowers is the National Managing Partner for legal firm Sparke Helmore.

© 2002 Gary Flowers

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