Large Law Firms and Corporate Social Responsibility

Birmingham Law School

‘It is unclear whether the public commitment to corporate social responsibility by some large law firms is a result of dedication by those firms to the principles of CSR, or simply a knee jerk reaction to the implementation of CSR strategies by their competitors.'

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is about the impacts that businesses have on their surroundings. CSR can take a variety of forms – carbon reductions, charitable giving, flexible work policies etc – and has been of interest to policy makers, academics and businesses themselves for the last five decades.

To date, however, little attention has been paid to CSR and large law firms. This is surprising given that these largest law firms are powerful, significant economic actors with potentially large, significant impacts. The top ten of the top 100 English and Welsh firms: 

  • have a combined annual turnover of just over £10billion; and
  • employ more than 2,000 lawyers each, with the largest (DLA Piper) employing over 4,000 lawyers and 8,000 staff worldwide in 89 separate offices across 30 countries.

In their research – Symbolism Over Substance? Large Law Firms and Corporate Social Responsibility – Vaughan, Thomas and Young use data taken from the websites of large law firms in England and Wales to outline and critique how those firms ‘do’ CSR. 

While the data suggests that public commitment of the top 100 law firms in England and Wales to CSR is widespread, how this commitment is presented by the firms varies significantly. Though the majority of firms say something to the wider world about their CSR activities, few firms explain why they are committed to CSR. As a general trend, the  lower the ranking of the law firm, the less they say about CSR and the less likely they are to explain their CSR motivations, although there are some notable exceptions to the rule at both ends of the rankings. Consistently, the top ten firms outperform lower ranked firms on all elements related to CSR. For some firms, however, it appears that the public commitment to CSR has greater symbolic than substantive weight