Symbolism over Substance? Large Law Firms and Corporate Social Responsibility

Steven Vaughan, Linden Thomas, Alastair Young

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At its core, corporate social responsibility (CSR) concerns the impacts of businesses on their surroundings. Despite their significant economic and geographic presence (and, as a corollary, their potential significant impacts), and despite the varied disciplinary and conceptual lenses used to study CSR, there is very little existing work looking at law firms and their own CSR policies. This paper fills part of that gap. In August 2014, we reviewed the websites of the top 100 English law firms, as ranked by the trade publication The Lawyer. We were interested in public disclosures made by those law firms on CSR. These were widespread. The majority of the top 100 firms say something to the wider world about CSR. However, what is said varies significantly. This is, perhaps, unsurprising. What is more surprising is that so few firms explain why they are committed to CSR. Where firms do make disclosures on CSR, these tend to group around the following three areas: (a) pro bono and community giving; (ii) diversity and inclusion; and (iii) environmental matters. For a number of firms, little or no distinction is made between pro bono (i.e. the giving of free legal advice) and wider ‘community giving’. We question whether this is the right approach. We were also concerned that, despite there being regulatory intervention by the Legal Services Board as regards the collection and reporting of diversity data by law firms (and other lawyers), the quality of disclosures (in terms of the amount, nature and breadth of data reported on) varied to such an extent that we were unable to draw any meaningful comparisons or conclusions on diversity in English law firms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)138-163
Number of pages26
JournalLegal Ethics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 22 Dec 2015


  • legal profession
  • CSR
  • pro bono
  • sustainability
  • diversity
  • law firms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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