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Chambers’ social responsibility

UK Bar editor John van der Luit-Drummond talks to five sets about their various CSR initiatives – what works, why they do it, and the challenges they face

Chambers’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives cover a number of different areas, including access to the profession and equality and diversity, as well as initiatives focusing on staff health, environmental sustainability, ethical business practices, and charitable causes. A successful CSR programme can have far-reaching effects, not only for the reputation of a chambers, but also for wider society and the environment. For sets which do not currently have a CSR programme, what works best and how can they implement one? To answer that question I spoke to representatives from five leading chambers on what works for them.

‘Matrix was founded on a set of core values which govern the way that it works and form a set of shared understandings that are a fundamental part of its identity,’ says Rachel Murray, the set’s marketing manager. ‘At the heart of these values is a commitment to equality and fairness in the way both barristers and staff work, and a public service ethos.’ Matrix is conscious of its duty to contribute to wider society which can be seen through the lens of its various CSR initiatives as well as the use of members’ expertise to carry out publicly funded and pro bono work.

Another set that has developed and implemented CSR initiatives which go beyond its core business activities is Maitland Chambers. While its members, through their own individual initiatives, use their skills and knowledge to help charitable causes and those in need, the set also provides activities the whole chambers can contribute to as a collective endeavour, but without pressure on individuals to commit, and with no identification of those who have not chosen to volunteer. In addition, all employees are allowed one day a year paid time-off to volunteer.

‘This model of CSR is particularly apposite to barristers’ chambers,’ explains chambers director Stewart Thompson. ‘It is also a model which does not try to take on more than is realistic for a small organisation like chambers, while having a high impact on the individuals benefitting from the projects. It is well-balanced between legal initiatives (pro-bono work and social mobility in the legal sector) for which members’ particular skills are efficiently utilised, and other social initiatives engaging the broader skill-sets and passions of members and staff.’

‘CSR programmes can be difficult to start in any small organisation,’ Peter Blair, chief operating officer at Quadrant Chambers admits. ‘There are rarely spare resources and finding investment – whether of time or funding – can be difficult. The Bar is a profession of individuals and so we have used membership of Heart of the City’ – the UK’s largest responsible small business network – ‘as a way of coordinating the different individual and chambers initiatives that were already in place and to help us develop new strategies and programmes.’

Clare Bello, former chambers manager of family set 4PB (now the new CEO of Cornerstone Barristers), details her old stable’s commitment to building CSR into its business strategy rather than considering it ‘a separate project’: ‘[CSR] is part of what chambers is, where it is going, its values, and how it wants to operate. CSR is not a “tick box” exercise and is at the heart of chambers’ business purpose, vision, and strategy. It impacts and influences every part of chambers’ activities and decisions.’

As Bello explains, solicitor clients increasingly have greater expectations on who they instruct and what they stand for: ‘CSR does make business sense, pursuing a sustainability agenda does in many cases lead to cost reduction possibilities, an increased competitive advantage. We also found that having an external focus and giving back to the community also significantly adds to the sense of belonging, motivation, and wellbeing of barristers and staff.’

Access to the Bar

As Matrix’s Murray explains, there are a number of challenges which young people wishing to pursue a career in the law face. On top of financial difficulties, key challenges include gaining relevant work experience and receiving appropriate encouragement, support, and advice from knowledgeable individuals.

‘With the aim of addressing some of these challenges, Matrix runs a work experience programme for GCSE and/or A-level students with 50% of places (“priority placements”) reserved for those from groups that are typically underrepresented at the Bar,’ says Murray. ‘This programme is about to be expanded to provide longer-term mentoring to those on priority placements who show particular promise.’

Matrix is also involved in several projects which aim to contribute to the progression and diversity of the Bar. These include being a founding member of FreeBar, a network for those who believe in equality for LGBTQ+ individuals, being a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champion Programme, and hosting events on topical issues which help to spark conversations and debate.

Matrix is not alone in offering ways to access and diversify the profession. ‘Over the past couple of years, we have put particular focus on making the Bar accessible to all,’ say Fountain Court deputy senior clerks Katie Szewczyk and Sian Huckett.

‘We are an active supporter of The Sutton Trust, and offer a series of placements in chambers to academically able students in Years 12 and 13 from non-privileged backgrounds who are interested in pursuing a career in the law. Members have also spoken at schools to provide information on the Bar to young people who may not previously have been aware of the opportunities available in the legal sector.’

But the outreach does not end there, explain Szewczyk and Huckett: ‘Members of our clerking team have also spoken at state schools in London and surrounding areas, talking to prospective students about the career opportunities on offer in barristers’ chambers, specifically what a clerking role entails. By talking to students we hope to promote careers in chambers and encourage diversity among our future staff.’

‘One of the things we felt strongly about was the lack of diversity at the commercial Bar,’ remarks Quadrant’s Blair. ‘We wanted to examine ways to help address it and believed that improving access to the profession could be valuable.’

To achieve this, Quadrant partnered with HFW to take part in PRIME, an alliance of UK law firms and chambers committed to improving access to the legal profession through work experience. ‘Students are in Years 9 to 13 of state-funded, non-fee-paying schools or colleges and grew up in a household where no parent or guardian attended university. Most are in receipt of free school meals, pupil premium, education maintenance allowance and/or a 16/19 bursary,’ explains Blair.

‘The PRIME programme is mainly focused on working with law firms and so we initially were unable to make the “PRIME commitment”, particularly with regard to the selection process and the requirement to offer a number of work placements as a ratio of training contracts. As with all sets of chambers, we do not have the support resources enjoyed by the larger law firms,’ he adds.

‘We contacted HFW, one of our key clients, to offer to act as part of HFW’s PRIME programmes, and we were able to develop a programme to introduce students to what it means to be a barrister and to look at the routes that are available to join the Bar, as well as the support roles that every set needs.’

The programme is either a full or half day with short presentations from barristers and staff with opportunities for students to ask questions as well as try out newly learnt networking techniques. Quadrant has offered several students follow-on placements and remain in contact as they make their first steps into their chosen profession.

Community outreach

Chambers involvement in local schools can have a wider impact than just increasing access to the profession, however. Maitland’s initiatives include supporting the children at the Argyle Primary School in Camden. ‘The school is a fully inclusive community school where over 25 languages are spoken and the great majority of children come from low-income families,’ explains Thompson. ‘For the past few years Maitland has provided the financial means for children to experience a day-trip to a place of interest outside of London. A popular destination is Warwick Castle, but the children have also visited Hampton Court Palace and The Globe Theatre.

‘A member of chambers staff accompanies them on these trips and the aim is to broaden the children’s horizons and raise aspirations, as well as give them an enjoyable day out. The children draw pictures and write about their day: these are collated into a book for the parents and the school (again paid for by donations from Maitland). It has been an outstanding success; the children learn a lot, and each year produced a gorgeous book for Maitland about the castle, which features proudly in Maitland’s reception.’

By far the biggest part of Maitland’s commitment to Argyle Primary School is the barrister and staff volunteers who visit the school throughout the year supporting the teachers in delivering reading, literacy, and numeracy skills to the children.

‘Barristers also run an annual debating workshop with students,’ says Thompson. ‘It is a very popular session in which the students are introduced to a subject (e.g. “Chocolate should be free for everyone”) before considering their own motion. Within smaller groups the students discuss the range of arguments on both sides and are encouraged by the barristers to think about how to present their views in the most persuasive manner. The children then conduct the debate during the final part of the session supported by the barristers, who then decide which group submitted the most compelling arguments. These debating workshops have inspired the school to hold similar debating sessions in the classroom and evidence of these is displayed on school noticeboards.’

Charitable donations

One of the most obvious CSR programmes chambers can involve itself in is fundraising and supporting like-minded charities. ‘One of 4PB’s early initiatives was developing a collaborative partnership with the children’s charity Barnardo’s’, explains Bello. ‘Chambers was keen to link specifically with a charity closely aligned to our work and committed to improving the life chances of children. Traditionally, it has been very easy to think that by giving money you can tick a box that you are doing your bit for charity, but we wanted to get more involved through giving our time to young people leaving the care system.’

This partnership led to barristers and staff becoming volunteer independent visitors (IVs) for young adults leaving the care system. This volunteer programme offers the young person support and friendship and barristers and staff are given the opportunity to make a tangible difference to the lives of young people, providing them support at a crucial time in their development into adulthood.

Matrix also has a charitable fund, known as the Causes Fund, which is made up of monthly contributions from staff and members to provide small grants to national and international charities. ‘The fund provides support to organisations which promote access to justice, equality of opportunity, or a sustainable environment,’ explains Murray. ‘This year Matrix is proud to have reached the £1m milestone, having donated to over 110 different charities since the fund was established in 2003.’

When selecting which charities to fund, a Matrix sub-committee aims to ensure that projects will have a long-lasting impact and, where possible, this impact has ‘a cascade effect’ allowing it to reach the maximum number of individuals. ‘This fund and the work it is able to support embodies Matrix’s core values, and provides the opportunity not only for Matrix to be associated with a wide range of fantastic initiatives but to make a bigger impact on the wider society in the UK and around the world.’

For the good of the people

Pro bono is another traditional initiative that chambers can involve itself in. As Fountain Court’s Szewczyk and Huckett explain, junior members in their first year of tenancy are required to provide legal advice at the Bethnal Green Advice centre every Wednesday evening.

In addition, the set’s juniors also volunteer for a number of other schemes including Pro Bono Connect, the Queen’s Bench Division Interim Applications Court Pro Bono Advocacy Scheme, and the Chancery Litigants in Person Scheme (CLIPS) set up in conjunction with the Chancery Bar Association to provide pro bono representation to litigants in person in the Rolls Building, Court 10, and at the Central London County Court.

Also of note, in 2019 Quadrant became a Gold patron of Advocate, the Bar’s national charity that makes it possible for barristers to balance a dedicated practice with making a significant contribution to the community. ‘We have a champion within chambers, Matthew Reeve, who acts as liaison between the charity and members of chambers to provide information and encouragement to our members to offer support to pro bono clients,’ explains Blair.

Ethical business practices

Matrix is one of a number of legal businesses with an eye on its environmental footprint and sustainability. Examples of this include undertaking a green audit, only serving vegetarian food at internal and client events, and looking at ways to use technology in an effort to become paperless.

CSR initiatives at Matrix also extend to the health and wellbeing of its staff and barristers. ‘For a company to be socially responsible, it first needs to be responsible to itself and all those that work within it,’ says Murray. ‘In addition to having an impact for individuals on a personal level, Matrix’s health and staff initiatives can help to boost morale and help employees to feel more valued at work.

‘A few initiatives include a commitment to paying the London Living Wage, creating a wellbeing policy and committee made up of barristers and staff, and providing access to a 24/7 confidential helpline as part of the Employee Assistance Programme for barristers, staff, and their families.’

Elsewhere, Maitland is also preaching what it practices, ensuring all its suppliers pay their staff a living wage. ‘Maitland contacts its suppliers once a year to confirm they are maintaining this commitment,’ explains Thomson. ‘Some suppliers who were not paying the wage decided to do so to retain Maitland’s business.’

Starting small

Now you know the kinds of CSR programmes your chambers can get involved in, but how best to get going and what challenges should you be wary of before you begin?

‘The greatest barrier to beginning these programmes is often a feeling that, as a small organisation, a set of chambers is unable to develop or provide a full programme of events for a significant number of students,’ explains Blair. ‘We found it beneficial to start small and to partner with organisations with a history of delivering these initiatives, and with resources to be able to support selection and management throughout the programme.’

‘To fully integrate and establish a wide-ranging CSR strategy for chambers its vital that senior management are fully committed and engaged in the process,’ says Bello. ‘CSR can’t be achieved by one person, and broad ownership is instrumental in bringing about change as well as ensuring the long-term CSR development. Engaging individuals with a particular interest in the various areas really help to embed CSR strategies at 4PB; champions are enthused and driven to make changes. Additionally, new challenges continue to emerge and we need a team of people committed to being innovative and creative.’

Murray suggests thinking about what resources are available to you in terms of time and money, and ensure the whole organisation is involved. ‘When implementing a new CSR programme think about quality over quantity,’ she says. ‘Ensure that there is collaboration between barristers and staff so that there is shared responsibility. If everyone is passionate about your initiatives, it will be easier to get people involved and they are more likely to be successful.

‘Ensure your CSR initiatives mirror your organisation’s values: your CSR programme can provide an insight into an organisation’s culture and values so make sure that they are in line with one another.’

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