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Vol. 36, No. 3

CSR for bars: Doing well by doing good

Dawn Conway is a lawyer and bar association member and served as senior vice president of corporate responsibility for LexisNexis. Bob Glaves is the executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, prior to which he was a practicing lawyer and active bar association member. This article is a follow-up to an NCBP/NABE/NCBF panel discussion of this topic at the 2011 ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto.

Ask lawyers why they chose to go to law school and become part of the legal profession, and virtually all will say something along the lines of “the opportunity to make a unique difference in the world.” Yet when you ask those same lawyers if they feel that they are fulfilling those ideals in their legal careers once they’ve been practicing for more than a few years, many, if not most, will say, “Not nearly as much as I had hoped” or express a similar sentiment.

Ask bar executives and leaders what their biggest challenge is today, and most will rank member recruitment, retention, and engagement (for voluntary bars) or member engagement (for mandatory bars) at or near the top. Technology, specialization, and the difficult job market that persists for newer lawyers make it more important than ever for all bar associations to move beyond the traditional “core package” of member benefits and find more ways to connect members together as lawyers.

And last, ask prominent business leaders today whether a robust corporate social responsibility (or CSR) program plays a key role in their company’s success, and the answer invariably will be yes. Statistics bear this out, too: One recent report noted that 80 percent of consumers said corporate support of causes wins their trust in a company, and 79 percent (and an even larger percentage of the “millennial” generation) said they would switch brands to support a cause they care about  if price and quality are equal. (See Saul, The End of Fundraising [2011], pp. 5-6.) The corporate world has long understood the importance of CSR, and law firms increasingly are building it into their business models as well. 

These three points might not seem related at first blush, but as explained more below, when you put them to-
gether, there is great potential for a win-win-win situation for bar associations, their members, and their communities. The idea of bars and their members doing good works is hardly a novel one, of course. Through their bar foundations and other public service programs, every bar association is engaged in these activities on some level, and there is some great work being done. 

Few bars, however, put all of these activities together into one cohesive framework and highlight it as a core part of what the association stands for to its members and its community. Building on the proven models and experiences from the corporate world and the already good work happening in bars, using a more strategic CSR approach is an opportunity to connect to members and potential members in new, more meaningful and lasting ways.

What is CSR, anyway?

Corporate social responsibility has been defined in a number of different ways, but one definition that captures it reasonably well is “a commitment to improve community well-being through discretionary business practices and contributions of corporate resources.” (Kotler and Lee, Corporate Social Responsibility [2005], p. 3.) Successful CSR programs have a central unifying theme or goal, and that theme is inextricably linked to the company’s overall strategy and brand.

Program elements typically involve how the business operates (e.g., valuing environmental sustainability and “green” initiatives); the ways that it works with its employees, customers, and partners (e.g., community volunteering initiatives); and how it interacts with the community, including both philanthropic and other contributions the company makes to improve community well-being (e.g., charitable and in-kind contributions). 

Creating a strong theme that reflects and supports the company’s overall brand and communications is very important. The central theme for a CSR program is typically a cause or issue that is integrally connected to the company’s business—something where the company’s resources and expertise can make a distinctive impact. For example, at Kraft, the central CSR focus is fighting hunger; for Microsoft, helping low-income communities and children get access to technology; and for LexisNexis, the rule of law.

There are a number of recognized benefits to companies that integrate effective CSR programs into their businesses, some of which include:

·  attracting, retaining, and engaging top-notch employees;

·  building a strong brand identity and reputation;

·  developing and improving relationships with new and existing customers and business partners;

·  building strong community relationships; and

·  improving communities where employees live and work and the company does business.

Why does this matter? As the authors of a new book put it, “People are choosing the companies in their lives in the same way they choose the guests they invite into their homes.  Consumers, employees, and investors are demanding that companies be ‘good company.’ ” (Bassi, Frauenheim, McMurrer, and Costello, Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era [2011], p. 5.) The authors of Good Company are among many who have demonstrated that companies that “behave better” are doing better from a business standpoint as well.  In fact, these authors posit that it soon will no longer be possible to do well in business without also “doing good.”

CSR in the bar context

While there are some obvious differences from the corporate context, most of the above CSR principles are equally applicable for bar associations. Every bar shares the goal of attracting,
retaining, and engaging members, and CSR can be a central part of that strategy.

Members have lots of options for what to do with their time, energy, and resources, and they want to be part of organizations making a difference. While that desire may not be the primary reason for membership or engagement in the bar, it is a proven differentiator. Among the other benefits of being a member of the bar association, members get the opportunity— through the bar foundation and other means—to give back to the community in a way that is unique to them as lawyers, which helps build and solidify their bond with the association. 

Beyond the very real benefits for membership, a solid CSR program will also help illuminate the many important contributions the association and its members are making in the community. This strengthens the association’s brand in the community (to potential members and others) and can help strengthen the profession’s image in a meaningful way. When done well, the bar is then seen by the public not as a trade association, but as a community of lawyers coming together to fulfill a shared commitment to a justice system that is fair, efficient, open, and accessible to all.

Elements of a bar CSR plan

In the bar context, there are three main elements to putting together a CSR plan: choosing the central goal for the bar in the community, identifying the many other ways the bar is contributing to the public good, and determining what relevant business practices the bar has adopted or may want to adopt. There should be clear and measurable goals and, as discussed in the next section, it is also critical to build evaluation and communication into the plan. 

Choosing the central goal

The central goal for the CSR program should be carried out in partnership with the bar foundation and focus on a cause in which lawyers are distinctly positioned to make an impact. It is very important to choose an overall theme for which the bar can easily create programs that support that overarching theme, and it is essential to focus and not have multiple themes. The theme should reflect the bar’s values and ethical obligations, be relevant to the community in which the bar resides, and reflect societal trends. In a nutshell, this involves identifying the CSR needs within the bar’s community and where the bar’s core competencies will have the biggest impact.

In the bar context, the central goal or theme for a CSR program typically is access to justice, as lawyers have unique expertise and resources and are distinctly positioned to lead on this issue as trustees of the justice system. 

The exact nature of how a particular bar and foundation pursue that access to justice mission will take many forms, depending on the landscape in that bar’s community (i.e., where is the bar in the best position to lead based on who else is working on these issues there, where are there gaps, etc.). It might be taking a comprehensive leadership role on these issues in the community; working with the courts on pro bono, pro se assistance, and similar projects; running a pro bono program for members; or leading a legislative funding campaign—or it might be some combination of those and other related initiatives. 

Another cause that a bar and foundation might adopt is civic education and improving public understanding of the law and the justice system. It depends on the landscape in a bar’s particular community; the key is to select an issue where members bring unique expertise and resources to the table and the bar is distinctly positioned to make an impact. 

Other member and community activities

A number of other activities and initiatives that bars engage in for the public good can be brought together under one umbrella within the CSR plan as well. Right now, bars that are involved in these activities tend to look at them separately, and a CSR plan can help better inform members and others of the many ways the association and its members are improving community well-being. Some of these activities may intersect with the plan’s central purpose of access to justice or civic education, and in those cases, they should be carefully coordinated with those larger efforts.

As with other parts of the plan, this section should be goal-driven, spelling out what the association is trying to accomplish in each key area. Here are some examples of the types of public service endeavors in which your bar might be active, and that should be brought into your new CSR plan:

·  Public education (e.g., print and Web-based resources to help people understand their legal rights and responsibilities, and community education programs);

·  Educating and engaging children and youth (e.g., law-related education projects, mock trial programs, and peer jury and conflict resolution efforts);

·  Improving the law and the administration of justice (e.g., programs with courts to improve efficiency and access; legislative programs to improve the law and legal system; judicial evaluation; and standards, resolutions, and model rules);

·  Facilitating public access to reputable lawyers with appropriate skills and experience (e.g., lawyer referral services, “where to go for help” guides, free advice hotlines or clinics, support for pro bono and legal aid through the bar foundation, and setting up fair and objective mechanisms to handle client-lawyer disputes); and

·  Public service volunteer programs (e.g., promotion and/or administration of  Young Lawyers Section community service volunteer projects for members).

Business practices

This last category is an umbrella for CSR activities that are part of the day-to-day operations of the association; in the association context, this can include using the bar’s “bully pulpit” to encourage members to adopt similar practices. Most common here are “green” initiatives to help protect the environment and promote sustainability.
Among other things, efforts to promote inclusion and a commitment to involving association and foundation staff in volunteering and community service also may fit here.

Evaluation and communication

Once you have a CSR plan together, building in regular evaluation and a solid communication strategy is critical to long-term and sustainable success. Evaluation is important first and foremost as a learning tool: identifying what’s working well, what type of impact the bar is having, and where there is room for improvement. Evaluation is also important on the communication front, as it gives the backing for the key messages about how the bar is making a difference. People in general, and lawyers especially so, are increasingly able to see through spin in the Internet era, so it is important not to exaggerate the bar’s impact. The program has to be authentic and one that builds trust among all the stakeholders to be successful. 

Effective communication about the bar’s CSR efforts is important for members and prospective members as well as the larger community. Active “bar junkies” usually have an understanding about the bar’s good works, but it is a mistake to assume that your average member or prospective member knows that. And that is even more true for the larger community.

Establishing a brand for the bar’s CSR work will allow members and the community to immediately understand the value of the bar and the CSR program. The CSR communications strategy easily could be the basis for another more in-depth article, but one tip is to include it as a prominent part of all core communications. (LexisNexis, for example, links to its CSR strategy prominently on the “About Us” page of its website.) Another good practice is to produce an annual CSR report that documents the bar’s impact in improving the community and highlights the program’s progress against the clear and measurable goals that are part of the plan. That report should be included with any broader annual reports of the bar as well. (The South Carolina Bar does something like this with its annual “Perspectives” report.)


A solid CSR strategy is not a replacement for all of the other important core benefits that a good bar association delivers for its members. In fact, while the evidence that CSR is a proven driver of success in the corporate world is solid, research suggests that for low-performing companies, CSR won’t have the same benefit. (Bhattacharya, Korschun and Sen, What Really Drives Value in Corporate Responsibility?, McKinsey Quarterly, December 2011.)

 For a CSR strategy to be successful in the bar context, it is critical that associations continue to do a great job of delivering to members core benefits such as CLE, practice resources, insurance and other group benefits, lawyer referral programs, leadership opportunities, and networking. The degree to which those more concrete benefits will matter to each individual member will vary, but the opportunity and means for members to connect to their colleagues and their community through a unified CSR effort can be meaningful to all. And if done well, it really can be that win-win-win scenario for bar associations, their members, and their communities.

NCBF’s guiding principles a good reference point for bar CSR efforts

Bar foundations will play an integral role in any successful bar CSR effort, and NCBF’s Guiding Principles below offer a good reference point. The NCBF LexisNexis Partnerships for Success Award (see highlights and celebrates noteworthy examples of associations and foundations working in concert to make a significant impact in their community on issues for which lawyers are uniquely positioned to lead.

NCBF Guiding Principles

1. By offering an effective means for the legal community to come together to engage in law-related philanthropy, bar foundations strengthen the profession by providing lawyers the opportunity to give back in a way that is uniquely important and rewarding for them as lawyers.

2. Just as bar associations bring lawyers together to address issues that are common to the profession, bar              foundations complement those efforts by giving the legal community an effective means to focus on charitable initiatives that lawyers are uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in  addressing.

3. With appropriate regard for the corporate and tax laws governing the relationship, bar foundations should work in close partnership with their associated bar associations to improve the profession, the justice system,  and the community.