Lawyers should cast an eye on social responsibility and sustainability, write Varsha Aithala and Siddharth Peter de Souza

There has been plenty of consolidation, as well as movement, in the legal market in India in the past couple of years following the split of the country’s largest law firm, Amarchand Mangaldas, the lateral movement of leading partners, and increasing frequency of high value transnational deals. With the globalization of business operations, the function of a law firm has matured into being an important economic agent, a large employer and also a driver of policy reforms.

With this multifaceted transformation, there are now increasing expectations among firms on their functions in relation to society at large. Justice Adda and the Cambridge Pro Bono Project worked together to develop a handbook to identify the roles of Indian law firms and define the parts they play in the delivery of legal services, promoting access to justice and building a culture of social responsibility.

Among the key questions driving the research were: 1) whether social responsibility is a symbolic enterprise or an aspirational concept; 2) if there is a need to integrate ideas of social impact in the firm’s operations; 3) should policies concerning social responsibility be formalized or should they continue to be informal and; 4) how to balance economic and ethical choices arising when working on particular cases in the market.

These questions have sparked debates about the nature of the legal profession. Does the profession have a public component to it? Do lawyers need, as Anthony Kronman argued, to be “statesmen”, and should justice not be seen as a “counter cultural value” to becoming a successful lawyer. Firms can contribute to access to justice by being more socially responsible, particularly in their spheres of influence, in terms of clients, employees and the general public, as well as the courts and the profession.

UNPACKING SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

The concept of social responsibility can be understood as strategies that combine business, human and social elements. The handbook addresses two distinct elements of social responsibility for law firms in focusing on their spheres of influence. The first deals with the internal aspects that determine the functions of law firms, such as the steps required to build an inclusive and sustainable working environment. The second is the more outward-looking aspects like the responsibilities of law firms to the community at large.

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