How Lawyers Can Take the Lead on Social Innovation

When Scott Curran looks at the legal industry, he sees a problem. “There are massive numbers of people who need a lawyer but can’t get or afford one, and yet we have unemployed lawyers,” he says. “If somebody can explain how that’s not a market inefficiency, I’d love to hear it.”

Curran wants to make it more efficient through social innovation. Earlier this year, after nearly 10 years as counsel for the Clinton Foundation, Curran founded Beyond Advisers to help nonprofits, businesses and other organizations create and manage social impact initiatives. That includes law firms, a unique private-sector species that Curran knows well, both from his days as a corporate attorney and as a consumer of big law as in-house counsel for the Clinton Foundation.

We spoke to Curran, who also teaches a course called “Lawyers as Social Innovators” at Chicago-Kent College of Law, about social innovation and the law.

What is social innovation in a business context?

The origins can be found in traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR), which in the past was how for-profit businesses would do good in the world. They’d have a foundation, a corporate giving strategy, an employee matching program, etc. Some big Fortune 500 companies even had, and still have, branded community engagement efforts, like Ronald McDonald House.

But CSR efforts traditionally involved using the business’s profits for a social benefit. Social impact is about doing good in the world using the business function. Now the corporate world is pivoting, at neck-whipping speed, toward integrating social impact activities into its profit-generating work. For example, for every pair of shoes it sells, Tom’s Shoes gives a pair to someone in need. Warby Parker, Thrive Market and others have similar models. These are all for-profit businesses that make a lot of money – and doing good is completely baked into their business model.

We’re also seeing companies like Amazon and Walmart engage in commercial co-ventures and cause-marketing campaigns with nonprofits. And there are nonprofits raising funds by offering their expertise to the private sector for a fee. The lines between nonprofits and for-profits are blurring in exciting and positive ways.

Then we see innovators using their time, talent and treasure to create and support new and dynamic social enterprises. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, through their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are giving away 99 percent of their Facebook stock through what sounds like a foundation, but is actually an LLC, which allows them to diversify the way they deploy assets to achieve business and social outcomes. That is social innovation, and it is exciting and awesome.

What role do law firms play in this?

Lawyers and law firms are already in the middle of it all. None of the companies shifting to social impact are doing so without legal advice. I’m assuming there were smart and creative lawyers involved in creating the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. I know there are smart and creative lawyers working in philanthropy and social enterprises operating around the world because I’ve seen it first-hand over the past decade. But lawyers’ involvement is typically passive, responding to client demand for counsel in developing their social impact efforts.

What the profession has not yet done, with a few exceptions, is considered what it looks like if we put lawyers at the front of the social innovation movement. I am completely excited by thinking about what our profession (and the world) looks like when lawyers put a stake in the ground and say “we are the architects of social innovation, the ones who bring these impact movements to life for our clients.”

There is an incredible opportunity here to define, capture and lead what I call Legal Social Innovation.

What’s in it for them?

In a nutshell: more business, talent satisfaction and positive industry change. A fantastic triple bottom line.

First, it is a business opportunity that meets a client need. As I noted earlier, clients (pro bono and paying clients alike) are already doing this work, and law firms are already supporting them. These clients increasingly expect their lawyers to speak the language of social innovation and offer defined social impact services.

Make no mistake, this isn’t your grandfather’s pro bono. That’s still a really important part of it. But this is a business opportunity, and one that will change the profession – and the world our profession uniquely serves – for the better.

Second, lawyers love doing this work. Social impact work engages attorneys and practice groups who’ve been historically underutilized in traditional pro bono work – business, finance and tax, for example. I saw this first-hand during my time at the Clinton Foundation, where our in-house team, along with some incredible outside firms, supported over a dozen initiatives that spanned global health, climate change, commercial agriculture and supply chain innovation, to name a few. We worked with several big law firms in both pro bono and paid capacities.

We saw the leaders of those firms offering more and more support for our work, because their lawyers loved doing it. That’s important to them because the data shows that our industry, and especially big law, has a problem in that the work is not perceived as inspiring or fulfilling. They have a huge opportunity to fix that, and developing a legal social innovation practice is a good way to do it. And again, given that a growing number of social enterprises are paying clients, this represents a business opportunity. It is no longer the case that attorneys and their firms can only find the “feel good” work through pro bono.

Finally, attorneys, firms and the profession should measure and get credit for this work. Most firms aren’t undertaking social impact efforts in an organized way. So they have a huge opportunity to recognize, organize and market this work to meet both client and talent demands. Pro bono work – which is currently the only measure of social impact – should be the starting point. But it is no longer a sufficient metric to capture all the good that attorneys, firms and the profession are doing. That needs to change. I have a plan and a metric for a new measurement. It includes existing pro bono measurement, but goes beyond to capture the other areas where firms are creating social impact. Some firms are already using it, and I expect more will too. I’d love to see AmLaw and other law firm rating organizations adopt it.

Do you see that social impulse in the law students you teach?

Absolutely. I believe law students go to law school feeling good about their decision and believing they will have a meaningful impact on the world. And they know that throughout history lawyers have served a vital social purpose. But at some point they have to merge their ideals with the idea of getting jobs, paying for law school and living their lives.

Then they get into their careers, and the opportunities they have for social impact are typically funneled into pro bono, legal aid and other volunteer service. Those are highly valuable; they’re meeting real needs and should be supported and continue to scale. But they’re usually addressing symptoms of societal problems. The law has an incredible opportunity to organize its talent around doing work that addresses systems change that hopefully alleviates the underlying causes of those symptoms. For example, the more robustly we support the rule of law and access to justice initiatives, the more we should see a reduction in wrongful prosecutions that require legal aid attorneys. The more we address market dynamics related to housing insecurity, the fewer landlord/tenant disputes we should need lawyers to serve.

If we’re practicing Legal Social Innovation at scale, throughout the profession, we can – and will – change the way systems work. We can do it without sacrificing profits. And we can do it in a way that results in a stronger, happier profession that is held in higher regard by the world around it.

That’s a bullish view, I know. It’s easier said than done. But I believe that, as a profession, we can – and should – do it…or at least get caught trying.

Brandon has spent his career sharpening his editorial skills to become an accomplished and successful communications and marketing professional.

When he’s not being outsmarted by his daughters, he spends his time reading, writing and attending theater and live readings around the city.