Clifford Chance conceives its corporate responsibility as breaking down into three principal spheres: how it treats its staff; how it contributes to its local communities; and the effect that it has on the physical environment.
We attach such importance to corporate social responsibility (CSR) for familiar but powerful reasons. Clients increasingly expect Clifford Chance to be running an integrated CSR programme. Often they welcome the opportunity to work with us on joint projects.
Many potential employees want to know that they will have opportunities to engage in CSR activities at their workplace and that their employer acts in a responsible manner. And there are the opportunities that the firm’s pro bono projects give our lawyers to develop skills. Which leads me to the question: What is a legal aid solicitor doing at Clifford Chance?
For eight years I practised as a legal aid solicitor acting for tenants in disputes with their landlords and for homeless people, trying to get them housed by local authorities. Now at Clifford Chance, my role is to coordinate and develop the London office’s pro bono practice.
What drew me to the firm was the seriousness of its pro bono commitment. In 2007/08 over 54% of lawyers in the London office did around 30,000 hours of pro bono work.
I was particularly impressed by the commitment to the provision of free social welfare legal services for those in need and unable to pay.
The firm has more than 200 lawyers involved at any one time in its FreeLaw programme, delivering free social welfare legal advice four nights a week at community advice centres in east and south London.
Law For All
The firm has a unique partnership with Law For All, the largest provider of not-for-profit legal services in social welfare law in the country.
Clifford Chance sends 20 trainees on three-month secondments each year, and they are able to supplement the service that Law For All is funded to provide its clients under the legal aid system.
The firm provides free representation to parents of autistic children seeking improved provision of resources for their children’s education before the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal and to victims of violent crime appealing against the amount of compensation they have received from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board in respect of their injuries.
Both schemes represent well-considered deployment of the firm’s expertise in tribunals at which the legal aid system will not pay for a lawyer if you cannot afford one.
As part of its strategy for aligning its CSR programme with its core business, the firm is committed to ensuring that all the pro bono and community volunteering it does, and all the charitable donations it makes through the Clifford Chance Foundation, have the effect of improving access to justice, finance or education. It makes sense for a law firm to seek to improve access to justice.
With its extensive expertise in finance-related law, it also makes sense for Clifford Chance to look for ways to deploy that expertise to improve access to finance.
The firm recently won Legal Week’s CSR Project of the Year Award 2008 in recognition of this aspect of its pro bono work. The Award recognised the role that the FreeLaw programme played in helping local people tackle law-related financial exclusion, and the role that the firm’s extensive legal support for the development of microfinance projects around the world has had in widening access to finance among the poorest communities in the developing world.
What are the hallmarks of a continuously improving programme? They certainly include: conceiving projects that utilise the particular skills of the lawyers involved; delivering a service to the same standards that are applied to fee-paying work; ensuring volunteers are properly supported and supervised; building up know-how and expertise in the recurring work-streams of the pro bono practice.
Such a pro bono practice could justly be described as professional, efficient and businesslike, fit to focus on what all lawyers are presumably committed to – widening access to legal services – and ready to take its place on an equal footing alongside the rest of a firm’s business.
This article first appeared in Legal Strategy Review, Issue 3