While industry performance remains key in attracting top talent to law firms, it’s far from the only metric young lawyers use when choosing an employer. These days, a firm’s stance on the social causes of the day can be just as important.
Global social justice causes like the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo and, in Australia, the recent #EnoughisEnough social media campaign, have prompted urgent conversations at home and abroad about racial injustice, policing and sexual violence against women.
They’ve also shaken up the corporate world, including the legal profession, as companies and law firms grapple with how best to deal with some of the most important issues of our time.
For law firms, the stakes are high when it comes to getting the response right, with a new generation of lawyers placing a higher priority on aligning career choices with values.
At Norton Rose Fulbright, managing partner Alison Deitz stresses the centrality of taking a long-term approach to social issues when attracting youthful values-driven talent.
Without commenting directly on issues such as Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, Deitz says the firm commits to “engaging and involving” its people in community programs that create meaningful change by offering secondment and pro bono opportunities, as well as opportunities to participate in community activities “on a local and global scale”.
Deitz cites, in particular, the firm’s backing of the Global Food Challenge, an initiative that saw the London-headquartered firm partner with food rescue organisation Oz Harvest to design a fundraising challenge built around the theme of reducing food waste and hunger.
“This was part of a global charitable initiative that set out to change and improve food practices, as much as it did to raise funds. It is important to have some longevity to the causes you support,” she says.
“Our current global initiative, being led out of our US offices, is focused on fighting racism and championing social justice. Australia will play a big role in supporting this important initiative this year.”
Nick Crennan, managing partner at Colin Biggers & Paisley, echoes Deitz’s comments, noting the importance of taking a “proactive” approach to social issues and attracting future talent.
According to Crennan, CBP five years ago determined its social focus would be on issues related to women and children, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The firm’s efforts are delivered via pro bono legal services, volunteering and charitable contribution, he says.
“What we do, what we say is that we try not to be reactive,” he explains.
“It’s not to say we don’t take a strong interest in particular issues as they occur from day to day, but as a group of nearly 500 people we can come together with an approach.
“We realise we can’t do everything that comes our way, we have limited resources and it’s important we have consensus. Having focused on those things, we can actually bring our professional minds to bear on particular issues and work on them.”
On its approach to specific issues like the #MeToo movement, Crennan points to the firm’s “very strong” resourcing of inclusion and diversity efforts targeted at gender and flexibility, as well as age and generation, LGBTQI, people with disabilities, and culture and religion.
“We believe we are firmly embedded in the community, and we derive our licence to be what we are, and do what we do, from the community.”
“One of the big differences – I think a really fundamental point for us – is whereas most firms treat their pro bono or social justice work as a completely separate part of what they do outside their commercial business, for us it is completely integral to our business”
More corporates, law firms backing social causes
In the wake of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Australian corporates have, across the board, been forced to review codes of conduct, hiring practices and harassment policies.
Corporate Australia has also been part of the call for change. Last year, for instance, the Champions of Change Coalition, which counts member CEOs from some of the nation’s biggest companies, called on sexual harassment to be treated as a workplace health and safety issue, while also launching a push to scale back non-disclosure agreements.
Meanwhile, overseas, especially in the US, brands like Netflix, Fox, Hulu and Apple Music have been highly vocal in their support of social causes, such as Black Lives Matter.
Several international law firms, too, have recently altered their practices in response to the global movements for gender and racial justice. International firm Dentons has pointed to Black Lives Matter as a reason for instituting a 20 per cent partner diversity target for its UK, Ireland and Middle East partnership, while Linklaters, citing the murder of George Floyd in the US, has pledged to do better on racial diversity by setting “aspirational” targets in the firm.
Despite such action, back in Sydney, Marque Lawyers managing partner Michael Bradley cautions that “words are cheap” when it comes to law firms’ support for social causes.
For its part, Marque does more than some firms on social justice as a certified B-company, one of a growing cohort of law practices in Australia looking past the bottom line.
Marque takes on a high volume of cases, usually pro bono, on issues involving refugees and asylum seekers, victims of sexual assault and harassment, and animal protection. It also looks after the legal needs of charities and not-for- profit organisations on a low-cost basis.
On luring top talent, Bradley views the firm’s commitment to social justice issues as a key “attractor” for young value-conscious lawyers to join the firm.
“One of the big differences – I think a really fundamental point for us – is whereas most firms treat their pro bono or social justice work as a completely separate part of what they do outside their commercial business, for us it is completely integral to our business,” he says.
“We don’t have a budget for pro bono or social justice work, it’s not resourced separately, we don’t deal with it differently, it’s a core part of our business.”
In his opinion, grads coming out of law schools increasingly want firms to demonstrate alignment between what they say about themselves and “the choices they make”.
“It’s critical to put your money where your mouth is. You have to apply serious resources if that’s what you care about, but also resources that are on a non-negotiable basis. They can’t be the first thing that goes in a downturn,” he says.
“It’s critical to put your money where your mouth is. You have to apply serious resources if that’s what you care about, but also resources that are on a non-negotiable basis. They can’t be the first thing that goes in a downturn.”
Law grads want ‘values-driven’ workplaces
Therese Wilson, Dean of Law at Griffith University, says while most graduates are happy just to land a job after law school, she’s noticed a change in what they want longer term.
According to Wilson, many law school finishers settle for whatever grad job they can get, but as their careers progress they tend to look for a values-driven workplace.
She says law students get “very positive signals” from firms that advocate in a genuine and authentic way for social issues such as LGBTQI and Indigenous rights.
“Those of us who were at uni in the 1980s, it was that ‘greed-is-good’ era, and none of this crossed our minds, whereas you talk to graduates today and it’s certainly front of mind,” says Wilson.
“Modern-day graduates are interested in knowing the type of work the firm does, but also its position on social issues. They want to be associated with a firm that’s making a positive difference in the world.”
Norton Rose Fulbright aims at such lofty ambitions, with Deitz saying the firm is keen to “clearly articulate” the career experience the firm can offer young talent. One way the firm goes about this, she says, is to label its people as “change navigators”.
“We want those who are considering joining our firm to know we are the kind of people who thrive with change and have the courage and know-how to navigate it.”
MinterEllison, too, cites social justice efforts as a selling point to young lawyers.
As Kate Cato, the firm’s Director of Pro Bono and Community Investment, explains: “We know that our people are attracted to join the firm and then motivated and engaged throughout their careers with the firm by the opportunity to create lasting impacts in the community through our pro bono and community investment program.”
Last year, for instance, she says more than 78 per cent of the firm’s partners and lawyers delivered pro bono legal services as part of the firm’s efforts “to address homelessness, alleviate poverty, support disadvantaged youth and improve access to justice”.
At the same time, Cato says being a lawyer at the biggest firm in the country is not all about getting behind social causes, stressing the duty MinterEllison staff have to the law itself.
“At the core of every lawyer’s career is a personal sense of meaning, which at its most elemental level must be congruent with their professional responsibilities, including their duty to the court, which admits them to legal practice at the beginning of their career.”
“Don’t just pick the biggest charity or the one with the biggest voice. Look at what criticisms there are of their practices, who’s doing innovative things, who’s able to demonstrate an impact”
Talent can see through ‘good washing’
While lots of firms are rushing to attract talent by positioning themselves as socially-conscious entities, Leigh Mathews, principal at Alto Global Consulting, says many get it wrong.
That’s because, according to Mathews, a significant number of law firms, like corporates more broadly, fall into the trap of so-called “good washing” where they detach their social justice messaging from their purpose, thereby falling short of authentic activism.
“Backing social causes is now a non-negotiable in business. Consumers as well as talent expect it and want it, and it’s a selling point, but when it comes to the causes they’re aligning with it becomes more complicated,” Mathews explains.
“‘Good washing’ comes in where companies are aligning with causes without really authentically understanding the issue and integrating it into the DNA of their business.”
A big risk for law firms, she says, is that in their hurry to appear in lock-step with popular social issues, they end up missing the mark and damage their brand in the minds of young people.
“Young talent and younger generations are way more conscious of social and environmental issues than ever before, and they can see through good washing,” she says. “Critically, they don’t want their own reputation linked to something that’s potentially negative.”
As she explains: “Many young people have separate careers outside of their nine-to-five jobs. They may be influencers, or they may have an online business. They’re doing all sorts of things, so their reputation is important and who they work for really matters to them.”
To this end, she urges firms to spend enough time and money to fully understand the issues they support as well as how these “integrate with your business and your stakeholders”.
Doing due diligence also applies to choosing a charity partner. As Mathews puts it: “Don’t just pick the biggest charity or the one with the biggest voice. Look at what criticisms there are of their practices, who’s doing innovative things, who’s able to demonstrate an impact.”
“All of these questions are really important to answer before you make a decision on who to align with.”