Keeping up with their corporate clients, large law firms have set their eyes on charitable efforts beyond the traditional pro bono commitment. And one firm recently put the leader of those efforts in the C-suite.
In June, Julie Goodman became the first chief corporate social responsibility officer at Winston & Strawn, coordinating the firm’s volunteer efforts and charitable giving. In shaping the role, Goodman said, she has looked to corporate clients, rather than other law firms—clients like Bank of America and Motorola. She said she doesn’t know of any other law firms with a chief title for corporate social responsibility.
“We really need someone to pull it all together and look at it with more of a strategic point of view,” Goodman said. “Law firms need to change like the rest of the business world.”
Valentine Brown, partner and pro bono counsel at Duane Morris, agreed. She said positions like Goodman’s are “the way of the future.”
“Looking at social responsibility the same way that clients look at social responsibility is going to be necessary,” Brown said. “It’s more effective, and also clients are going to be looking for that.”
Many firms, including her own, are already engaged in charitable activities other than pro bono, Brown said. But having a C-level executive overseeing those efforts highlights that commitment.
“Having a person in that role would help them demonstrate what they’re already doing and present it in a way that’s cohesive,” Brown said. “It helps, especially in getting the internal actors in the firm to understand the importance of it. Also, it will help to show clients that it is something the firm takes seriously.”
Unlike Brown, Goodman does not oversee pro bono, but she said she expects to work closely with Winston & Strawn’s pro bono practice leaders, particularly when the firm has opportunities to volunteer nonlegal help for pro bono clients. She has been with the firm for 28 years, most recently having served in a human relations position before taking on her newest role.
Like any staff position, Goodman said, “there has to be a business driver” for adding a corporate social responsibility executive.
“It’s important to clients, which makes it important to us,” she said. “Another [reason] is to retain and attract the best talent … our employees want to work for an organization that cares.”
Chief by Another Name?
Goodman’s title is unique, but many other firms have a person in charge of charitable work, sometimes including pro bono.
Bruce Gilchrist, the global citizenship chair at Hogan Lovells, oversees a team of 24 full-time employees dedicated to the firm’s citizenship program. But he is also a full-time corporate and securities partner. The firm’s citizenship program includes pro bono, volunteering, diversity and inclusion, sustainability and a matching program for charitable donations.
Firms may not need to dedicate an entire position to CSR leadership, he said. But the person who leads CSR should have authority at the firm.
“We’ve, I think, consciously wanted it to be partner-driven, and not outsourced [to an administrative position], but there’s nothing wrong with outsourcing it,” he said. “We made a conscious choice that it might need to be senior people to show other people that it’s an important part of your experience and work for Hogan Lovells.”
There’s no one right model, said Reena Glazer, assistant director of the law firm pro bono project at the Pro Bono Institute. It depends on the firm’s structure.
“Some of this goes to the professionalization of law firms,” Glazer said—the implementation of corporate leadership models throughout the industry. “To the extent that a C-suite position lends gravitas … that could be a good thing.”
But if pro bono is put under a social responsibility umbrella, a CCSRO should not just be an administrative position, she noted.
“In many respects, running a pro bono program at a law firm, you’re running the biggest practice group,” she said.
Integrating pro bono with community service and charitable giving allows all of those functions to work more effectively, she said. But if executed improperly, it can muddy the waters.
“You want to be sure that the lines don’t get blurred … that you’re not mushing in all of your volunteer and pro bono efforts,” she said.
A Step Further
Still, even firms with a corporate social responsibility strategy may be behind the times.
“I think it’s awesome. I applaud it. And I think it should go further,” said Scott Curran of Beyond Advisers, speaking about Winston & Strawn’s new position.
He said the rest of the business world has moved past corporate social responsibility into social impact—simply defined as using the business model itself to do good. Unlike pro bono, social impact produces revenue. A former general counsel for the Clinton Foundation, Curran now helps law firms, nonprofits and other businesses find ways to do good while making money.
“I love that the chief CSR officer is becoming real, but I think we have to leapfrog the title and call it the chief social impact officer,” Curran said. “I’m here to be a catalyst to tell law firms, ‘You’re already doing more than that.’”
The interaction between pro bono and social impact is complicated, said Glazer, of the Pro Bono Institute. But social impact is an emerging area, she said, as lawyers seek more ways to use their profession as a vehicle for positive change.
Having a C-suite role to organize those efforts is absolutely necessary, Curran said.
“There’s no question in my mind that firms have to prioritize this at the top level,” he said. “There are firms that say they want to do this and don’t action it. They have to understand that this is not our grandfather’s pro bono.”