Law Firm Social Responsibility Strategies In The New Normal

By Tina van der Ven
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Law360 (September 29, 2020, 1:55 PM EDT) --
Tina van der Ven
Tina van der Ven
Recognizing that the pandemic has significantly reduced available time, money and personnel to support law firms' corporate social responsibility programs, law firm leaders and marketers are struggling to find effective ways to continue their traditions of giving back. Their goal is to find a way to apply their limited resources to bring maximal value to the causes they support, as well as their law firms' brands and employee/client engagement and retention programs.

I've seen that law firms can miss valuable opportunities to maximize their available resources by neglecting to consider several fundamental questions upfront as they develop their corporate social responsibility programs. Following is some practical guidance that can help firms take a sharpshooter's approach and develop more customized, impactful programs.

1. Identify where you currently stand competitively as a firm.

First, take a deep dive and look at how the pandemic has impacted your market position. Determine where you want to be today and in the coming year, five years and 10 years. This is a critical time to create strategic changes related to your branding initiatives, recruitment, sales strategies, business development targets, media strategy, and firm goals and objectives.

2. Evaluate your overall financial health.

Beyond such considerations as annual revenues and billable hours, it is particularly important to consider at this time whether your clients are paying on time and whether any expenses may be trimmed.

3. Review your charitable spending, including your charitable giving this year and during the past five years.

Evaluate the specific nonprofits you have supported, the level of engagement from your lawyers with the organizations, how the donations are made, and whether there is a strong business purpose to justify the level of investment. If your firm has a foundation to which your attorneys contribute, it's helpful to consider how their contributions going forward are likely to change.

Also, consider the efficacy of your current system for approving requests from lawyers for charitable donations, including both money and pro bono time.

4. Identify a pragmatic and realistic charitable spending budget for the remainder of the year and into 2021.

Keep in mind that there is a high likelihood that galas and luncheons will be put on hold for some time, and this will impact your charitable spending outlook. Leaders should create a document highlighting the charities that you want to stay engaged with — and that also have a strong business purpose tied to them — and new nonprofit targets for consideration.

Do you need to create a streamlined approval process for charitable requests that is managed by an office manager or a member of the marketing department, to help ensure that all resources are allocated with a solid business purpose in mind? If you already have this in place, do you need to update your protocols or recirculate it to your partners and business staff as a reminder?

5. Discuss your proposed charitable strategy and process with your lawyers and business staff.

Get lawyers and business staff involved in a constructive dialogue seeking their input, whether it be a discussion tied with a virtual firm or office retreat or a Zoom town hall meeting. Use this time to solicit ideas and address questions or concerns.

Having lawyers and staff buy into the process is key to success. Actively listen, take notes on an easel pad and gauge what key initiatives are important to your team today.

Are there specific nonprofits or causes in the community that resonate with them more now than ever due to the pandemic? What are some innovative ideas specific to giving back that they have that require less money and time and are both meaningful and impactful?

Consider creating a contest for your lawyers and business staff seeking their ideas for innovative and unique community initiatives for implementation as a firm. Assign a marketing team member or an office manager to track these ideas and feedback into an actionable document that leaders can refer to on an ongoing basis.

6. Get input from your external stakeholders.

It is important to seek feedback from your clients, community partners and key referral resources. Consider creating a focus group consisting of your top 20 clients and proactively seek their input in areas including their key concerns from a community perspective, their perceptions of your firm's impact and commitment to corporate social responsibility initiatives, and their recommendations for improvement.

7. Reach out to key pro bono and nonprofit contacts.

It is equally important to engage your key pro bono and nonprofit contacts, including your local bar association or legal aid clinic, to identify pro bono opportunities and resources available to assist your lawyers.

Create a page or section on your intranet site that highlights these opportunities and the respective contact person and information. It is important to make this information easily accessible to lawyers and to offer a variety of options. Lawyers will ultimately choose pro bono projects with which they feel personally connected — and not just work related to their practice areas.

As a result of the pandemic, we can expect to see an increase in the number of pro bono cases related to housing, employment, trusts and estates, and bankruptcy issues. And organizations and individuals will continue to need assistance in the areas of civil rights, LGBTQ issues, immigration, and labor and employment, to name a few.

Remember, in addition to being good for the soul, pro bono service also is a great way for your lawyers to expand their knowledge of new areas of the law and deepen their connections with their colleagues in the legal industry.

8. Find ways to engage your lawyers and business staff.

Connect with nonprofit CEOs and leadership to brainstorm unique ways, that are mindful of social distancing, to get your lawyers and business staff engaged in their unique causes.

For example, if mentoring children is a key area of interest to your firm, get your lawyers and business staff involved in a virtual mentoring program (for example, connect with your local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America). If literacy is an area of interest, align with programs that enable your staff members to conveniently read books to children via Zoom while sharing the books on their screens.

If specific local nonprofits need school supplies, pet supplies, food or clothing for children and families, set up an Amazon wish list with key items and encourage your lawyers and business staff members to make contributions of any amount. And then have your firm match these contributions.

If possible, try to create an enjoyable and impactful volunteer activity that will bring small teams, of fewer than 10, together on a weekend to participate in a community improvement project, whether it involves painting a building, delivering food to isolated senior citizens, or hosting a food drive. All of these acts of kindness will ultimately lead to a boost in productivity, morale and camaraderie.

9. Revisit your overall marketing and communications plan.

Make sure that the feedback received from your internal and external stakeholders on corporate social responsibility aligns with the goals and initiatives currently reflected on your marketing and communications plan. If it does not, then modify your plan accordingly.

It is critically important to create an overall business growth plan, including corporate social responsibility, that is realistic and attainable. It should include goals, objectives, a timeline, person(s) responsible for each initiative, the respective attorney(s) aligned to the initiative, and a corresponding PR plan that highlights these key initiatives.

Remember, your corporate social responsibility plan, along with all marketing and business development strategies, need to have a strong business purpose and intent. It is important to highlight the charities and programs that you want to get involved with and specify which lawyer(s) would be the right fit to align with those respective organizations.

10. Now it is time to execute the plan, and carefully track your charitable spending.

Refer to your business growth plan and have your point of contact responsible for this plan give periodic updates to your firm employees. Post photos from any community initiatives on your company social media pages and newsletters. Recognize and thank your employees for their contributions.

Highlight any new educational programs or initiatives that the firm is implementing for your staff and attorneys based on feedback given from key clients. Mention and congratulate every individual who participated in any charitable or pro bono project and describe the scope of the project through internal communications. This will inspire others to get involved. Most importantly, stay committed, focused and accountable to these corporate social responsibility endeavors and enjoy the process.

As I always say to my two young kids, if we have the ability to keep a roof over our heads, have food on our plates and keep the lights on, we must make the time to give back to our community — to all the children and families who need our help and to the community that has rallied by our sides through the highs and lows.

This year has been a challenging year, but we simply cannot forget that we have a fundamental duty as businesspeople and as individual members of society to make the time to roll up our sleeves, give back and continue our efforts, of any kind, to support a greater good.

Tina van der Ven is co-CEO of NewStar Media.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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