Doing Well by Doing Good: Law Firm Social Responsibility

Corporations increasingly subscribe to the principle of corporate social responsibility. CSR is based on the belief that a demonstration of concern for the environment, human rights, community development and the welfare of their employees can make a corporation more profitable. And if not more profitable, at least a better place to work.

corporate social responsibility for law firms

Law firms can learn from corporate experience to create their own social responsibility programs. Such programs can help law firms to do well by doing good. They can strengthen the firm's reputation and market position. They can help the firm identify with the culture and CSR activities of clients and potential clients. They can help lawyers and staff find more meaning in their work and improve as human beings.

In the words of the social responsibility Karma Committee at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck: Be kind. Be generous. Be concerned. Donate time. Donate effort. Donate money. Just find a cause and give. You'll quickly discover giving is also receiving.

A panel discussion about how law firms can learn about CSR and introduce some of its elements into their own models was sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. 

Panelists included Sarah Hogan, vice president of Barefoot PR; Bruce DeBoskey, lawyer and founder of The DeBoskey Group, which focuses on philanthropic advising; Joyce Witte, Community Investment Advisor and director of the Encana Cares Foundation, Encana Oil & Gas (USA); and Amy Venturi, director of community relations & karma at Brownstein. Moderator was Cori Plotkin, president of Barefoot PR.

At law firms, the product is the people - the lawyers and support staff who provide high quality legal services. It is an easy fit. There are many ways that this 'product' can contribute time, talent and treasure to socially responsible activities.

Social responsibility: Focus and strategy

Law firm social responsibility is all about making a difference within the community and the profession, and within a firm. Even the best efforts will make no impact if spread too thin. You cannot maximize the value of your contributions or tell your story if your efforts are too diluted. To decide how to most effectively invest its resources, a law firm needs a social responsibility focus and a strategy.

Social responsibility efforts must be authentic. Law firms and other entities should always avoid 'green-washing' - telling a story that is aspirational, but not really true. Know yourself. Let your firm's unique culture and skills determine which efforts to pursue and which to avoid.

When examining your culture, don't limit yourself to partner input. Law firms are small communities, almost like families. Any effort to define culture and social responsibility should represent not only the interests of lawyers, but the interests of all levels of support staff. Efforts must be meaningful throughout the firm. The benefits to employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction can be remarkable.

DeBoskey outlined three types of community involvement and stated his belief that a good social responsibility plan includes elements of all three.

In a traditional model, an organization 'gives back' randomly to the community when asked - as a good citizen, rather than for any strategic purposes. In a social responsibility model, these efforts align with the capabilities of the business - like the legal skills of lawyers. Every non-profit needs legal advice.

At it's most sophisticated, a social responsibility program involves using your core product - legal services - as a tool for social change. Volunteer with organizations like the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver, or the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center.

A strong focus makes it much easier to make decisions. Encana, for example, focuses its charitable giving strategy on issues surrounding its product -- natural gas. Brownstein will donate money only if the request comes from a client, or if one of their attorneys is a member of the organization and on the board.

Law firms looking for additional advice can find valuable resources within the Corporate Community Investment Network. CCIN is an association for professionals whose primary responsibility is to manage community investment programs in a for-profit business setting.

Many corporations and a few law firms have actually created separate foundations to mange some of their giving. A foundation comes with more restrictions and different tax methods. As entities with a life of their own, however, foundations are more likely than one-off efforts to continue a useful existence.

Social responsibility: Good policies make good decisions

Strategy and focus provide the foundation for an effective social responsibility policy. Most law firms are inundated with requests from good causes asking for their support. A policy helps you know when to say "yes" to and when to say "no."

In the law firm model, where all partners are owners with a sense of entitlement to resources, it can be very difficult to say no. A keenly focused policy makes it much easier to do so and keep the firm's efforts on track.

Encana, for example, uses a five-step tool to determine the level of fit between a request and the company's strategic goals in the field of natural gas - with level five being the largest commitment and level one the lowest.

Level five efforts integrate core product or service and often involve natural gas vehicles and energy efficiency initiatives using natural gas. These efforts contribute to best practices and leading trends in the industry, while enhancing the company's reputation as a leader.

Level four efforts focus on strategic partnerships and often involve sustainable and long-term solutions like workforce development initiatives, signature programs (which can be repeated in other markets) and multi-year grants.

Level three efforts include strategic grants to assist with projects, programs or initiatives made to local non-profits aligned with natural gas.

Level two efforts include responsive giving, which is a one-time gift for a broad community effort that has local support. Participation of company representatives is required.

Level one efforts include the "t-shirt and banner" category, which contains one-day items like dinners, receptions, golf tournaments, events and races. These offer the least impact and awareness for the money, and therefore the least support.

At Brownstein, requests made to the firm are judged by two factors. The firm considers only requests made by clients and requests made by organizations where one of its attorneys participates at the board level.

Social responsibility: Engagement

Effective social responsibility programs involve not only checkbook involvement, but personal and professional involvement.

At Brownstein, the brand has always been about being out in the community. Six years ago, Venturi was asked to formalize this essential component of the firm's culture into a social responsibility program that would further energize lawyers.

She started by spending 15 minutes with each of the attorneys, to discover their passions - which were used to identify a good non-profit match. After all, lawyers and staff will stay involved and do their best only when an organization is something that they care deeply about. If there is no engagement, the placement will backfire.

Finally, Venturi offers the lawyer's services to the non-profit in some capacity - but it must be at the board level. Otherwise, she won't make the match.

Project Karma is a Brownstein program dedicated to volunteer opportunities, and maintains a committee in each of the firm's 12 offices. It sponsors informal lunch & learn presentations by local non-profits to encourage interest.

The message about active engagement by lawyers and staff must come from the top. Brownstein makes it very clear that the path to partnership for a new attorney is based not only on legal skills, but also on engagement and involvement with the community.

It is important to add a community involvement component to lawyer reviews, even if it is only one goal a year. That lets the lawyers know that you are serious. The Colorado Supreme Court asks every lawyer in to contribute 50 hours of pro bono work each year. Integrating these programs leads to win/win results for the firm.

Not every firm can match the efforts of a large company like Encana or a large law firm like Brownstein. However, there are good matches for firms of every size. Once again, it is all a matter of focus.

In fact, it is much easier to get five members of a small firm to focus on a strategic initiative than 500 lawyers in a huge firm. If a law firm has $10,000 to donate, that money goes a lot father and has a lot more impact to one organization than do $100 donations spread across 100 organizations.

corporate social responsibility for law firms

Smaller law firms can also multiply its impact by partnering with others in an industry, like vendors or clients, to support a particular non-profit.

Social responsibility: Return on investment

Corporations measure the results of their social responsibility programs, and use these results to make decisions on efforts going forward. Law firms should do the same.

At the end of the year, Encana uses its five-level model (outline above) to analyze our charitable giving. How much was given at each level? Then the company sends a form to each non-profit, asking the recipient to evaluate outcomes (statistics for what was accomplished), process (did efforts meet the intended audience) and impact (what difference did it make).

Encana asks recipients to reply within 60 days, and uses this information to calculate return on investment. Those who do not report back are not eligible for further contributions. The non-profits might gripe at first, but they seem to change their minds once they've been through the process - finding that it has useful strategic value.

It is entirely appropriate to ask a non-profit to document the results they've achieved based on your contribution. It lets them know that you are truly invested in the organization. They will see you more as partners and engage you differently.

Most corporations have created and benefited from well-thought-through and strategic social responsibility programs. Law firms are starting to do the same. A program with tight focus and strict guidelines guarantees maximum impact and awareness in exchange for a law firm's commitment of time, talent and treasure.

Community Based Paralegals Are Empowering the Poor Across the Globe

The UN estimates that 4 billion people worldwide live outside the protection of the law. These people can be driven from their land, intimidated by violence, and excluded from society. 

paralegals helping the poor

Paralegals and the Legal Empowerment of the Poor

Community-based paralegals offer unique skills and professional characteristics that enhance efforts to improve justice for the poor. Similar to the gap that rural public health workers fill in relation to doctors, paralegals provide a dynamic, cost-effective, community-oriented alternative to lawyers. Paralegals do not replace lawyers but by working in conjunction with them can enhance the use of the law and the applicability of legal and policy solutions to individual and community problems. 

Community-based paralegals may bring together skill sets belonging to diverse professions, such as social workers, mediators, educators, traditional community leaders, interpreters, administrators, and lawyers, with the added value applying these skills according to the specific needs of the situation and the community.

The Roles of Community-Based Paralegals

A community-based paralegal is a person who: 

Has basic knowledge of the law, the legal system, and its procedures, and has basic legal skills Is a member of the community or part of an organization that works in the community and has basic knowledge of the ways community members access justice services 
(including through traditional or informal justice mechanisms) 

Has skills and knowledge on alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, including mediation, conflict resolution, and negotiation 

Is able to communicate ideas and information to community members using interactive teaching methods 

Can have working relationships with local authorities and service delivery agencies 

Has community organizing skills that can be used to empower communities to address systematic problems on their own in the future

Paralegals may be compensated as full- or part-time employees or may work as volunteers. This depends upon the ways in which the sponsoring organization uses personnel, the overall culture of volunteerism in a given country, the amount of time required of paralegals versus their discretionary time, and wage levels. If the paralegals work as volunteers, the program will ideally compensate them for transportation costs and other direct expenses.

Training can be seen as a benefit to the paralegal because they contribute to the paralegal’s personal and professional development. In more developed community-based programs, such as in South Africa, paralegals are lobbying to be formally accredited. (See Chapter 8 for details on standard-setting for paralegal diplomas.) Paralegals can be based in different kinds of organizations. They may be placed in “advice offices”—service organizations run by paralegals exclusively for the purpose of offering basic counsel, community education, and referrals.

Paralegals can also work in community-based or multi-service organizations where paralegal services are one of a series of services available to clients. They can also be based in law firms, law offices, and legal resource centers. In these settings, paralegals remove some of the workloads from lawyers by dealing with smaller cases and by doing much of the initial groundwork for interviewing, taking statements, and evidence gathering. They also do follow-up work and report back to clients.

It is important to bear in mind that a paralegal is not a lawyer. A paralegal cannot assist people in court and other tribunals until he or she acquires the relevant qualification and accreditation. However, paralegals also offer skills that lawyers rarely possess, and can extend the knowledge and expertise of the lawyers with whom they work. Paralegals can add complementary skills that are finely tuned to local contexts, such as speaking local languages, knowledge of local forms of justice, and community acceptance.

Common activities of community-based paralegal programs include:

Legal and general advice. Advise people on how to handle legal or administrative problems. Refer people to organizations that provide social and health services. The program will have a network of contacts with other paralegals, resources, and organizations that can help the community. Depending upon the local context, the paralegal might work with both formal and customary law institutions.

Counseling and mediation. Help community members solve problems through techniques that encourage resolution without going to court. Informal legal mechanisms can include personal counseling, alternative dispute resolution (negotiation and mediation), and arbitration.

Community education. Hold workshops to raise public awareness and build the capacity of individuals and groups, including civil society organizations, civil servants, government officials, and community councils. Distribute educational pamphlets, booklets, and other resources. Community-based paralegal programming initially involves the training of paralegals and these same paralegals, in turn, can become involved in community education programming.

Litigation activities. Investigate cases, sometimes involving legal research and writing that is then passed on to lawyers, or work as a link between a community and lawyers. Paralegals can help with taking statements, interpreting, and following up on cases. In some jurisdictions, paralegals can appear in lower level courts in relation to certain civil cases. If the paralegal organization has lawyers on staff, paralegals can help represent individuals or groups in cases before courts or administrative agencies on issues affecting the public interest. Paralegal organizations will often take a strategic approach to litigation, taking cases that affect not only the individual involved but also larger legal and social issues within a community or country.

Community organizing and advocacy. Help resolve widespread problems in a community and problems with authorities through negotiation and mediation. Assist in making contact with the press and publicizing events and problems. Some organizations take up cases that challenge existing laws while others draft and advocate for new legislation. Organizations may also provide analysis or opinions on legal instructions being considered.

Each paralegal program and its paralegals will need to choose the methods that are best suited to the individual cases they seek to address, as well as the overall environment in which the program operates. 

The Open Society Justice Initiative

Paralegals: How to Communicate with Clients During All Phases of the Case

Paralegals can’t get away from the fact that everything we do involves communication. Whether it is communicating with a client, the court, a judge or even the local copy shop, we need to know how to communicate.  Paralegals are called on to be the liaison between clients, witnesses, experts, and counsel.  Strong communication and writing skills are essential in fulfilling this role.  This is not something that is easily taught and/or learned in a classroom.  For most of us, this is something we learn over time and/or while on the job.  As liaison, you must thoroughly understand the legal concepts of confidential communications, work-product, and conflicts of interest.  You must also understand the dangers of giving legal advice which is often sought.

Think about these tips when communicating with clients and the legal team: 

·       clarify your ideas before you communicate
·       identify and examine the true purpose of each communication
·       follow up your communication; be sure your actions mirror and support your communication
·       be mindful of overtones and use your time wisely 

Do not give legal advice in a client communication.  If you relay legal advice to a client, be sure your communication indicates the advice is from the attorney.  Understand attorney work-product doctrine.  Be mindful of potential conflicts of interest.  Educate yourself on concepts of confidential communications.  Do not predict the outcome of the client matter to a client.   

Here are three (3) ways a paralegal is often utilized to communicate with clients:

The Client Interview

Your role as a paralegal may be to conduct client interviews.  The general purposes of the client interview are to determine facts, to identify evidence, to locate leads for additional information, to assess damages and to evaluate the client as a witness.  A client interview may have additional specific purposes.  Determine the purpose of the interview.  Communicate that purpose both to the attorney before the interview and to the client during the interview.  Once the goals are set, prepare to conduct the interview and accomplish those goals.  The purpose of the prospective client interview is to determine the prospective client’s needs and to obtain facts and information which will assist the lawyer in determining whether to offer legal representation.  In addition, during the course of the client interview, you should sort out facts and determine the source, i.e. personal knowledge or otherwise develop leads, identify physical evidence and evaluate potential remedies.  Your role in the client interview will depend on the practice area, your experience and skill level, and the attorney’s practice habits.  You may be asked to conduct the interview alone or to assist the attorney in conducting the interview.

Preparing for the interview:

Research the facts and the law.  Read the file, including correspondence and client documents.  Prepare a chronology and/or cast of characters to assist you in grasping the facts of the case.  Understand the legal issues of the case.  Review the appropriate statutes, case law, etc.  Prepare the interview site.  The atmosphere must be professional and confidential.  If possible, arrange to conduct the interview in a conference room to avoid interruptions and to maintain a sense of confidentiality.  Make sure materials related to other cases are not in this client’s view.  Arrange to hold all calls.  Prepare an outline for the interview.  Determine what types of documents you would like the client to bring to the interview.  Communicate your document wish list to the client, along with confirmation of the time, date and location of the interview.  If there is time, follow any verbal communication with written communication.  Arrange for and anticipate a client’s special needs, if any.

Conducting the interview:

To conduct an effective interview, you must immediately gain the trust of the client and understand the client’s situation.  Although every interview is unique, all clients have problems and are probably worried or upset over the circumstances surrounding the lawyer’s representation.  Approach each interview with the understanding the client is in a crisis or stressful situation.  Put the client at ease by conducting the interview in a confidential and comfortable environment.  Eliminate any behavior that may be considered pressure. For example, avoid the traditional seating arrangement, in which the paralegal sits behind a desk with the client on the other side, reinforcing the authority image.  Instead, arrange the seats “catty-corner” using an end table or smaller desk.  Act relaxed, not nervous.  Maintain eye contact. Watch for facial and body language.  Maintain a sincere, interested attitude.  Having the ability to listen is essential to effective interviewing. 

Listening is not only hearing.  Effective listeners work at listening, resist distractions and judge content.  Effective listeners interpret, follow body language, paraphrase to check for understanding and do not let past experience, bias, expectation of what will be said or attitude distract them from listening. Let the client know you are on his or her side.  Be thorough, leaving the impression no stone has been left unturned and you will always be accessible.  Work to have the client place confidence in your ability.  During the course of the interview, determine the client’s needs.  What does the client expect, want or need?  What types of documents are in the client’s possession or control related to the matter at hand?  How many documents are there?  Where are the documents located?  If the documents are voluminous, determine the personnel resources of the client.  How can the documents be copied?  Are there personnel to assist in the collection of documents?  Communication is a two-way street.  

You must understand the client, and the client must understand you.  Modify your vocabulary to match the educational background of the client.  Avoid legal jargon.  Be alert for signals that the client does not understand something.  If you do not understand industry terminology, ask questions.  An interview should be conversational, with the client interviewee at ease.  Maintain eye contact with the client as much as possible during the interview.  Avoid distractions.  While note taking may be a distraction in the course of the interview, you must take notes, so do not be afraid to take outline form or shorthand notes using abbreviations.  Fill in the details immediately following the interview.  Use ice-braking techniques to put the client at ease and conduct an effective interview.  

Offer the client a beverage. Talk “small talk” on the way to the conference room or location of the interview.  Do not discuss case matters in the hallway or restrooms - this gives the appearance of a lack of confidentiality or professionalism.  To get the client talking and more relaxed, begin the interview with preliminary data and routine information such as addresses, telephone numbers, employment and educational information.  State the purpose of the interview.  Begin the body of the interview with a narrative.  Ask open-ended questions to encourage the client to narrate his or her story.  Narrative questions begin with “Tell me about…”  Obtain details later.  An interview may be more productive after the client has been allowed to say what he or she wants to say.  Listen and watch while you interview.  How is the client reacting to your questions?  Listen for hints or leads to other information.  Be flexible, not tied to your outline.  

Do not ask difficult questions at the beginning of the interview.  Do not alienate the client with blunt, direct questions.  Avoid suggesting answers, ask non-leading questions such as who, what, when, how and where.  Follow up on details after the narrative has been told.  To ensure the client remains at ease during the interview, ask “why” questions carefully.  “Why” questions sometimes evoke defensiveness.  Rather than “why” ask “what were your reasons?”  Focus on only one issue per question.    

As you ask questions, be supportive.  Nod your head.  Paraphrase the client’s responses from time to time to check for understanding.  Explore judgment questions, such as time and distance, so that judgment statements do not trap the client.  Role-play time and distance to ensure the accuracy of the statements.  Taking accurate notes is essential for an effective interview.  Any discussions of fees (i.e. trust account and retainer) should be discussed with the attorney. Have the client execute any authorizations (medical, tax, employer) at the interview and explain why you want these items.

Following the interview:

Immediately after the interview, prepare a detailed summary memorandum.  The summary memorandum must reflect all relevant details, including the date and time of the interview, documents collected, witness names, addresses and telephone numbers.  It must also contain information on damages, detailed information concerning the client’s knowledge of the facts related to the matter leads to additional information and a to-do list that describes documents to be collected and investigation to perform.  The communication with the client doesn’t end after the interview.  You will need to follow up on any requests made during the interview.


A paralegal will be called on to assist the client in answering discovery (interrogatories, request for production of documents, requests for admissions, etc.)  Good lines of communication are needed in order to obtain relevant information in order to prepare substantial responses to all discovery requests.  All discovery requests received should be copied and sent to the client for only their review at this point.  You should then go through the discovery requests and prepare draft responses based on information in the file.  Once complete, contact the client to obtain any additional, more specific and/or updated information in order to complete any incomplete responses.  Inform the client you have prepared draft responses which will then be provided to the attorney to review and make further revisions.  Advise the client you will be sending them a copy of the draft answers/responses which they will need to review and confirm all information is correct. 

You will need to answer any questions the client may have about a particular way a response was prepared, the style and/or the format of the answers/responses.  Ask the client to execute the verification/certification and send back so the answers/responses can be finalized and sent to the other side so the litigation can proceed.


Paralegals also play a big role in coordinating the client’s deposition.  You will need to again answer any questions the client may have about what a deposition is, the purpose of a deposition and types of questions ordinarily asked during a deposition.  If a client has never been deposed, you need to discuss in detail the process of a deposition so they are better prepared and more relaxed.  You will have to coordinate the deposition preparation meeting between the client and attorney.  

Normally a meeting a day or two before the deposition works best to keep the preparation fresh in the client’s mind.  If too much time passes between the preparation and the deposition, the client may forget much of what was discussed during the meeting.  Once the deposition and preparation meetings are scheduled, be sure to confirm in writing the date, time, location and provide directions.  It is also a wise idea to allow time for a brief preparation meeting just before the deposition begins.  Be sure to calendar the dates so you can call the client the day before to remind and confirm.


Trial preparation is another area where the attorney will rely heavily on the paralegal’s assistance in communicating with the client.  You will be in control of making all arrangements for the trial preparation meetings, providing the client with preparation assignments (for example to review their deposition transcript, discovery responses, exhibits, etc.), and coordinating a mock trial (see Title V, section C).  You will also be the person who the client will lean on during the course of the trial.  

While the attorney is busy preparing for opening/closing, next witness or the next day, the client will need someone to calm their nerves, answer any questions (again never predicting the outcome of the case or giving legal advice) and warning the client of potential dangers which surround them in a courtroom.  You have to remember you have been to court over and over again but the client, on the other hand, may never have seen the inside of a courtroom except perhaps from television.   

Clients need to be told not to talk to jurors in or outside the courtroom during the course of the trial, instructed on appropriate actions in and outside of the courtroom which include no chewing gum/eating candy in front of the jury (you don’t want them to think that you think you are at the movies), no shacking head in either a yes or no position or making faces while witnesses are on stand and not to feel too relaxed where you are saying too much in front of the other side.  

These little things that you know to do and not to do in the courtroom comes second nature to us but clients need quite a bit of guidance in this unusual setting.  Jurors watch everything during the trial, not just the evidence of the case.  Jurors watch the attorney, attorney’s staff, client and even your own expert’s behavior.  Jurors will watch the way your client looks, walks, talks and acts in and outside of the courtroom.  So the client needs to be aware of those potential dangers.

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