Sustainability-oriented governance means embracing a true cultural, professional and economic revolution. It is time to move from declaring adherence to ideals to implementing strategies that are as ambitious as they are concrete.
When I started working on law firm communication at the end of 2007, one of the first things I tried to analyse was how structured law firms used to approach the issue of corporate social responsibility, which today is identified with the #ESG criteria. In those days, the idea of social responsibility contemplated by a law firm mostly matched with pro-bono and charity activities.
However, some large law firms - few in number, to be honest - were beginning to pay attention to environmental impact and gender issues: this is the case, for example, with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which since 2006 has created an annual report for its stakeholders as a demonstration of its commitment to diversity management, climate change and environmental issues.
In the second half of the 2000s, large corporations began to seriously consider adopting corporate social responsibility policies, with the understanding that the consumer, no longer a target but a real partner of the organisation, would not accept a "put on a front" approach. The result was that companies also began to choose their providers, including law firms, based on the same principles.
ESG governance for law firms too
In the 2022 perspective, sustainability is at the heart of the core actions of organizations, at least of the most designed ones and those which are under the spotlight of investors and consumers. The adoption of ESG-oriented organizational policies in professional firms can be deduced mainly from the adhesion to a code of ethics and the accounting through sustainability reports. If we exclude the big international law firms that have built up important sustainability projects on a global level over the years, with results mostly similar to those of corporations, some Italian law firms have tried to shape their sensitivity on ESG topics mainly on inclusiveness and environmental issues. However, if one delves into the real level of engagement of these firms in adopting real dedicated policies, there is no doubt that there is still a long way to go.
We could define these as first attempts, certainly praiseworthy, but dictated more by the communicative need to ride the wave to differentiate themselves against the competitors than by a conscious choice to run the firm according to ESG principles that should lead to radical changes, if not real revolutions, in the way of approaching business and work.
Besides, in companies too, the topic of social responsibility and sustainability was for many years exclusively in the hands of those responsible for corporate communication, almost as if it was a mere maquillage operation into which to insert elements often reconstructed ad hoc, depending on public approval.
At least at the level of large organizations, sustainability is now, fortunately, universally recognised as a director of #governance. If, on one hand, it is natural for communication to be recognised as a function that pervades the entire organization and collaborates in defining its strategies, on the other hand it is equally true that delegating sustainability to communication means failing to recognize sustainability as a founding element of the company.
The same principle is applicable to professional firms.
To say that the firm is 'paperless' because it has digitalized its paperwork (in times of assessing the environmental impact of sending an email), or because it uses low-energy lighting systems (seriously?), or even because it relies on a predominantly female workforce (except that it has one or two women and dozens of men among its equity partners), may even be counterproductive. Yet this is the standard to date of involvement of many Italian professional firms that decide to report on their sustainability.
A professional firm that really wants to differentiate itself through its ESG-driven governance must first think about its #stakeholder, listen to them and assess how the firm's actions will have a positive impact and sustainable growth. It should take all the necessary steps to achieve those goals, monitor its progress, and report to its influential audiences on all efforts in that direction. It is not necessary to declare itself compliant with its principles from the outset since it would lack credibility; it is better to outline a medium-term path, describe it, involve the public in its 'vision'.
We always tell our client firms that if you do not have a sustainability strategy, you cannot convey your commitment to sustainability.
The adoption of a sustainability-oriented governance is, above all, a great opportunity for professional firms to evolve and reform themselves, an opportunity that must be introduced with great courage because it takes them out of the 'comfort zone' of a certain way of acting and understanding the legal sector. A great revolution, not only cultural but also economic, is taking place right now and adapting to it means gathering all the energy to make a great leap forward (to the benefit of all ).