Doing Well by Doing Good – With Graeme Cleland of Burness Paull

Doing Well by Doing Good – With Graeme Cleland of Burness Paull

Transcript

James: Welcome to today’s podcast, which is a part of a series we’re running with industry leaders on innovation, corporate social responsibility, and the impact of business. Today we’re joined by Graeme Cleland, Head of Communications at Burness Paull, a top tier independent commercial law firm. From offices across Scotland, they support a range of UK and international clients with their broad base of expertise that ranges from tech to private equity.

Graeme joins us today to discuss how a passion for technology and a commitment to doing good has impacted Burness Paull this year. Graeme, thank you very much for joining us.

I think just to kick things off, perhaps you could tell me a little bit about the Burness Paull foundation, how it all came about some of the history behind it.

Graeme: Happy to do so. The firm had really decided that it wanted to do something quite different with regards to CSR activity, and didn’t really want that to be a centralised thing that was decided from on high, with people then being told what was happening, they wanted it to be something that colleagues across the firm played a really active role in. So, they formed the foundation as a charitable trust and that’s managed by 14 trustees – five of them are selected to represent different areas within the firm, and the remaining number are elected from volunteers across the business. So, it can be anybody working in any role across the firm, and then they’ve got dedicated support from the Foundation Manager, Jackie Robertson. 

“Our key objective is to promote the charitable work of the firm on a collective basis”

So, the foundation itself is funded by the firm on an annual basis as a block grant, and our key objective is to promote the charitable work of the firm on a collective basis, but really also support the individual efforts of employees. So, that is geared towards helping employees with the fundraising efforts that are close to their heart, rather than it being something that is dictated by the firm as a whole. The employees can make applications to the foundation for financial awards to help them with their fundraising for worthwhile causes of their choice. It could be sponsorship or financial support in any shape or form to run a CSR event or initiative, and those applications are considered on a monthly basis by the trustees and awarded accordingly. 

So, it’s really about ensuring that it wasn’t a sort of centralised attack controlled by a small number of people, nor was it too disparate with little pockets of it happening in uncoordinated ways across the firm as well. It’s really a part of the commitment to being a firm and a collective group of individuals that have an ethical approach to supporting charitable activity. 

James: Brilliant. I believe you also just stepped down as a trustee, is that right? 

Graeme: Yes, that’s right. So, you know, I was very grateful to be a trustee for the last couple of years and help out on a whole range of initiatives as well, and then we rotate it every so often so that there are new faces and new ideas in there, but it’s really rewarding and it’s great to see the enthusiasm with which trustees tackle that role. I think it’s brilliant as well, it really does help to get that understanding of the culture across the firm, because it is people from different offices and from different departments, you know, some people are lawyers, some people are not lawyers, so it really helps build the internal culture and understanding of how important CSR and fundraising is to people across the business and the different champions for it. 

“It really does help to get that understanding of the culture across the firm, because it is people from different offices and from different departments”

It’s also really helped bring in new activities to the firm to support, because sometimes it can be a very small award that a staff member wants to be involved in, and there’s so much enthusiasm for it across the firm that it becomes a bigger, stronger relationship over a number of years. That’s certainly happened with a number of charities, like Street Soccer, which we have a very long-standing partnership with, and that has grown and grown over the years, from small beginnings into something that is probably our biggest charity partnership now, and people across the firm have been involved in that on a regular basis at different levels too. So, it sort of gives it that depth to build on. 

James: Yeah, fantastic. So, I suppose that’s a really great way for you to engage most of the staff in your team at some point with the foundation, be it through their own particular charities that they are doing fundraisers for, or more perhaps in the management sense with the foundation. Do you also do things with volunteering as well?

Graeme: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s a key part of it, and quite often it will start off maybe with a colleague that’s looking for a small amount of money to support them initially, because they are doing volunteering and it allows them to access that, and then because other people have seen what they’re doing and are enthused by it, they want to join in as well. We’ve had a couple of very recent examples – even in this challenging time when we’re having to do social distancing – there was one based out in Edinburgh that involved tree planting and therefore it was possible to still do it outside and go ahead with social distancing measures in place. There’s been really great uptake, it started with one team within the firm that looked to do that and get on board and support something that they were enthusiastic about, and it’s opened up to the rest of the firm via the foundation, which was offering some financial support as well, and then more people stepped forward to volunteer and take part in it. 

“It is a really great way of enthusing people and shining a light on what individuals in the firm are doing and giving them the freedom to choose which activities to support rather than it just being seen as something that happens”

So it is a really great way of enthusing people and shining a light on what individuals in the firm are doing and giving them the freedom to choose which activities to support rather than it just being seen as something that happens. In some other companies, there are times where there may be enthusiasm for it at a very high level, and it’s not entirely understood why that relationship is there or how other people can engage in it that maybe aren’t at management level, and I think that was always a key focus of the firm. We wanted to ensure that the foundation was very democratic from that point of view, and it opened up access to get involved in things rather than it being monolithic. 

James: Absolutely, and I don’t know if you’ve got numbers on how many of the team actually get involved with these things, but is that something whereby you’re maybe having to turn down requests more than you’re actually having to seek out to try and encourage people? Are they taking the lead themselves?

Graeme: Yeah. I think it really varies. It’s interesting as a trustee when you come to look at applications, you tend to get flurries around certain times of the year. Obviously, in the summer, people are very keen to get out and take part in outdoor activities, and that can be anything from marathons, running events and triathlons and things like that when the weather is good, and then it switches over into those winter activities, especially at periods like this and in the run-up to the festive season where the focus is usually around things like supporting food banks and volunteering, you know, around supporting people, like Street Soccer, who do an awful lot of work with the people who have suffered from homelessness, etc., and the focus really turns on to that type of charitable giving when it’s most needed. 

“Law firms are busy places, and it can be difficult if you’re trying to impose that top-down approach”

So, yeah, I’ve seen it change with the seasons, almost. I think the thing about it was law firms are busy places, and it can be difficult if you’re trying to impose that top-down approach to say “We’ve committed to doing X with a charity and we need so many people to volunteer”, and that always, I think, feels slightly forced. I think the way we go about it here is slightly different, where it really does come from the bottom up. So, if somebody is enthusiastic, and they want to do it and we can support them as an individual, great. If they come seeking help from their colleagues, I think people generally find that they are more likely to say “Yeah, that sounds great, and I really want to help you with that” rather than it being a management imposed thing, if you see what I mean. 

So, you know, quite often you get it where other people cotton onto what’s happening and say

“I’d love to come along. How can I get involved and help with that?” And then the firm can – via the foundation and trustees – sign off more support if it’s required and make it into a bigger thing. It’s been really nice to see where something has maybe started off with one person a couple of years ago, and year on year it’s grown and maybe there are a dozen people, maybe there’s 20 people, and really big events that we’ve seen – like gala dinners with Street Soccer – a big charity fundraising event like that, where we perhaps have tables of guests as part of that event, and some of the firm are entertaining clients, and other people are volunteering to help run the event itself. 

We’ve been to events where we’ve probably had almost a hundred people from the firm involved in some shape or form, and I think that’s just a really good example of the sort of ethos of getting involved in and supporting these events.

James: Yeah, absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. So, I think you guys do a lot with charities, particularly in Scotland. Perhaps you can tell me a little bit about what it is that Burness Paull can offer charities that perhaps other law firms aren’t doing?

Graeme: I think the firm is fortunate enough to have a very good reputation in terms of the charity and third sector advice that it can provide. The team built a pretty enviable reputation as being quite innovative, and really, really passionate about the sector. The firm has been involved and has been heavily invested in it for an awfully long time, so I think it’s that closeness to the sector that really helps because it is slightly different from other parts of the business world and it has its own requirements. So, I think our team has been very conscious of that over a long period and are able to deliver advice in a way which reflects that special ethos and the values of the sector.

 “I think it’s that closeness to the sector that really helps because it is slightly different from other parts of the business world and it has its own requirements”

I think, aside from the policy and legal support, they’re very close to the latest developments in charity law and governance. They genuinely have a passion for it and understand it. So, they come from a mix of backgrounds as lawyers in terms of being different specialists in different fields, but they really do have that understanding of the dynamics of third sector organisations and the environment we work in. They’ve actually had a lot of firsts to their name over the years, just to that innovation point, really. So, when it comes to developing new third sector legal models, they always had a willingness to try new things, and that’s led to some quite groundbreaking work over the years on things like joint ventures and community shared issues and consortium working and new types of legal entities that are appropriate for the third sector. They’ve also worked closely over the years with supporting social enterprises and other kinds of third sector organisations to expand into new areas, and that can be things like, the delivery of public services or community empowerment, community buy-outs and community energy projects. So, I think that’s led over quite a long period to the firm and the charities and the third sector team having really strong relationships with all the key umbrella bodies. 

I think they’re conscious that it’s also a sector where they feel like they have to put something back in, and they’re always keen to get involved in the development of best practice and share that knowledge. So, they’ll be involved in things like constitutions and guidance that becomes a resource for third sector organisations across Scotland, rather than it just being, we’ve given this piece of advice to one person, thank you very much, and off we go until the next one comes along. 

So, I think largely, that’s been reflective of the ethos of the firm as a whole, but particularly the personalities involved and the charities in the third sector team who just live and breathe it. You know, they have a passion for it and they’re willing to go above and beyond the call of duty where required.

James: So, you mentioned innovation a few times there, and certainly that was something I wanted to come on to. I understand you have a whole innovation team – can you tell me a little bit about what they do and sort of what their day-to-day might look like? 

Graeme: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that we’ve been looking hard at, in light of the pandemic as well, and how we take it even further, I think, like many organisations, the pandemic has probably sped up innovation. It’s been a necessity in some regards, but actually, we’ve been a very fortunate position where it’s been something that’s been quite embedded in the culture of the firm for a long time.

“It’s not just about introducing shiny new things, it’s really about that willingness to change and get involved”

 

I guess it’s good in two aspects. One is that the innovation team will be looking at what client-facing innovations can we make? How can we make things easier for clients? How can we make it more efficient? How can we make it more cost-effective? And that’s something that you’re always looking at and try to give feedback on how we can improve it. That might be anything from using certain pieces of software, but actually, it could be about process changes and genuinely doing things differently from how they’ve been done before. So, it’s not just about introducing shiny new things, it’s really about that willingness to change and get involved. 

A great example of that is our innovation manager, Sam Moore, who was actually the first recognised Legal Technologist in Scotland, as recognised by the Law Society. So, he’s got a great overview as a commercial lawyer first and foremost, but also as somebody who’s very passionate about technology and innovation and how you marry the two up. A good example of that perhaps is, you know, if a client asks one of our lawyers to come in – and it doesn’t really matter what sector it is – if they’ve got a bit of an intractable problem with something that they want it solved, quite often, they will bring Sam in to look at that as well, to bring that fresh set of eyes on it, and say “Well, is this a problem we can solve by changing the process or introducing a new piece of technology that will make it easier”, and that’s been really, really successful. 

I guess a couple of examples that we can talk about relating to that are things like the introduction of automation and AI around large case files and things, where it would take a person sitting at a desk, sometimes days to go through the legal documents for a huge case or a big deal, and we’ve been able to introduce ways that will actually reduce that down to sometimes hours, so that the first run is done automatically and it flags up the key points for a lawyer to then just check them off and make sure that they are absolutely correct.

“People sometimes worry about whether that type of innovation, technology and AI is going to replace people, but I don’t think we see it that way. We think it’s about making the job easier for people”

So, people sometimes worry about whether that type of innovation, technology and AI is going to replace people, but I don’t think we see it that way. We think it’s about making the job easier for people, and what it really boils down to is that, you know, clients want problems solved. That’s what they’ve always wanted from lawyers and law firms, but the biggest benefit from our point of view is that it frees people up at all levels within the firm to do work on the really important stuff for clients and not get bogged down in the admin stuff, which there’s no getting away from it in that professional and legal sector, but that’s why it’s been a key focus for us because, I think that there’s still lots more efficiencies to come in this sector that can be unlocked, but it’s a pragmatic use of technology and smarter processes and the right type of people. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for any of them.

James: Hopefully AI in and new technologies can kind of reduce some of the drudgeries. 

Graeme: That’s exactly it. I think that’s the benefit, and the truth of that is there’s a huge benefit to clients, because it takes less time to do the work and therefore you don’t have to charge as much, but there’s also a real benefit for lawyers as well, because no one really enjoys that drudgery, as you said. Nobody really wants to get bogged down in that admin. People want to work on the interesting parts of the legal job, whether that’s a deal-making and mergers and acquisitions, or as we were talking about in the charity sector, looking at whether we do something really innovative from a client standpoint and help them solve their problems, and you will get more people if they’re working on those things rather than have to spend hours and hours of their day leafing through long documents.

James: Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of all these wonderful technological innovations, I assume this year, you’ve really tested the limits of what can be done remotely. So, how have you found that? And I assume you’ve ended up adapting in more ways than just adding a few more zoom calls to the daily schedule?

Graeme: Yeah, absolutely. I think we have been on this journey for a while, in terms of embedding an agile working system and remote working, and some of that was prompted by the ‘Beast from the East’ when we had that awful weather, I think it was around March time, lots of snow, pretty much dragged the country to a holt for a week. We already had some systems in place to allow people to work remotely, but they hadn’t really been tested to the limit at that point, and we quickly realised that if everybody suddenly wanted to work remotely, that was going to cause us difficulty. You know, we’d always had a percentage of our workforce doing it that way, but there were interesting lessons learned in the aftermath of that. Our brilliant IT team went away and looked at it and said “Okay, that was a great test case. So, if we had to go all remote, this is what we would have to have in place”, and we did it. 

“We saw some other firms and businesses in other places get a bit caught out because they didn’t necessarily see it having to be done on that scale before”

I think the board was very forward-looking and took it as a priority to do that, and that really helped us when it came to the pandemic and lockdown this year, because, actually, it really significantly diminished the disruption because it was already a place. We saw some other firms and businesses in other places get a bit caught out because they didn’t necessarily see it having to be done on that scale before, but we were actually able to move everybody to a remote-first approach well before the start of lockdown, because it was already in place. So, that was a real boon, and as I said, we already had that mix of people being able to work remotely and from home already, but it absolutely did change things for some people, though. I mean, there certainly were some practices from the legal standpoint that were already well in place, but others just hadn’t really been picked up quite as quickly, and you know, a lot of things were still being done face-to-face. So, some people did have to adapt quite quickly, but it’s been amazing. 

“We’ve really upped the ante in terms of how we’ve communicated with clients, and it’s really broken down our geographical boundaries in many ways, which is great”

Some people have been surprised at how easy the switch has been, we’ve been able to do all of our regular meetings, whether it’s with UK based clients or international clients, even without that travel, we’ve still been able to pitch for new business virtually and still been able to meet our clients virtually. We’ve really upped the ante in terms of how we’ve communicated with clients, and it’s really broken down our geographical boundaries in many ways, which is great. You know, we’ve welcomed well over 4,000 delegates to our online events from all over the world, and they would be people who would’ve probably had to go overseas, or would have struggled to get to Scotland or the UK to come to events before. 

We’ve also recruited more than 40 people since lockdown began and onboarded them all virtually, and they’re working really productively, despite the fact they’ve never met anybody in person, which seems amazing, doesn’t it? If you’d said that a year ago, people would’ve said: “Oh, that sounds a bit extreme”, but actually, because people have had to adapt to that, it’s worked really well. I was talking to someone today who has just come on board in the past week or so, and he has been amazed at how smooth it is and how easy it is to even meet people virtually. So, having that technology in place already and the independent culture that we have that allows decisions to be made quickly and roll initiatives out more quickly, you know, that’s really given us continuity for the first part, and being able to serve clients without any disruption, but has also been able to speed up some of their innovations and initiatives had in training already, but were being gradually rolled out. We’ve definitely been able to fast forward those, and I suppose a really easy example to give is electronic signatures, which were being used by parts of the business, but not all of them, and had been around for probably two years as our resource, and suddenly everybody had to use them. Thankfully we had already tested them, and it’s worked fine, but will anybody now switch back to doing it on paper if lockdown ends tomorrow? I’m not so sure, I think people really understand some of the benefits of working like this.

James: Yeah, I think the electronic signature example is probably the simplest for us all to imagine, because the insanity of trying to print things out to then take a photo of them and upload them. 

“The paperless office was always seen as a bit of a dream, but it exists at the moment”

Graeme: I mean, a really good example of that, and lots of businesses will experience this, is print costs go through the floor because people aren’t in the offices, etc, people find new ways of working, and I guess at first people are maybe not as keen to do that way, but if you’re weighing it up in pounds and pence and environmental impact, why would you go back to doing it any other way? There’s just so many benefits from it. People will still want to go back to having face-to-face meetings, etc, but I think at a very basic level around paper and printing and things like that, as you can properly go paperless if you want to. The paperless office was always seen as a bit of a dream, but it exists at the moment. 

James: Absolutely. Well, I’m very glad to hear that is the case for you guys, and I hope that we might catch up in that sense. So, it sounds like you guys were actually pretty well prepared for the pandemic and all the homeworking consequences it’s had for many of us. I expect that sounds from the sounds of it, you probably weren’t involved in a rush to go out and buy new hardware?

Graeme: No, that’s exactly it. I mean, we were sort of surprised to see other people having to do that, but as I said, it was born out of our experience of the ‘Beast from the East’, and also I think, we’re Scottish based as a firm, but we’ve also always had that global outlook and a large percentage of our business is international. So, we tend to have a lot of people, out of the office, on the road in any one week under normal circumstances. That could be London or that could be on a West Coast island somewhere in Scotland or actually in Europe or the US, etc. 

“It was a no-brainer in some respects to ensure that everybody was able to do everything they needed to do outside of the office”

So, it was a no-brainer in some respects to ensure that everybody was able to do everything they needed to do outside of the office. So, that was an initiative that was well underway and there was no rush to it to go out and buy new equipment, thankfully. I mean, what we did do is put in place a fund for people to equip their home office. So, we gave everybody a budget to buy upgraded monitors and help with their desks and webcams, and just the things that would make it more comfortable for people to work at home. I think that was very well received, but in terms of the actual hardware and systems, nothing really changed. It was just that people started to use certain elements of it on a daily basis, rather than just on an occasional basis, really. So, we’ve always had that interoperability between offices and people have been very used to doing video conferencing and things like that in our offices, so it wasn’t really new, they were just switching to doing it on their home computer. 

James: No, it’s been very interesting to see the responses with some companies having to switch entirely from desktops to laptops and being totally caught by this, but very glad to hear that you guys are leading the way against that. 

Just to move on to a slightly different topic. I think one of the most praising things, this year was the way that the black lives matter movement resounded throughout the UK. Obviously you guys seem to be doing quite a lot in terms of promoting diversity in the workplace, but did the movement, as a wider thing, have much of an implication for you, was there a way that you try to respond to it particularly?

“Inclusion and respect is something that’s been very high on that agenda at Burness Paull, and as a firm, we want the legal sector to be a profession where everybody feels welcome”

Graeme: There’s certainly a high level of awareness and engagement with it, no doubt about it at all, and inclusion and respect is something that’s always been very high on that agenda at Burness Paull, and as a firm, we want the legal sector to be a profession where everybody feels welcome. I think there’s always a question of whether that’s always been the case in certain parts of the sector, but it’s something that we’ve been pushing quite hard on over a number of years.

“It was really important to us as a firm that the switch to remote working and the pandemic didn’t disrupt any of the progress that we’ve been making with respect and inclusion”

It was really important to us as a firm that the switch to remote working and the pandemic didn’t disrupt any of the progress that we’ve been making with respect and inclusion. So, you know, even though everybody’s working remotely, we still celebrated Pride virtually, we used Black History Month in October to highlight the work we’ve been doing to improve ethnic diversity in the profession. We’re really conscious of the impact the Black Lives Matter movement had made on people during a lockdown and we wanted to make sure that colleagues knew that it was an issue that we were fully engaged with.

One of the things that was already in training anyway was that we were in the process of signing up to Race Awareness Commitment, which entails a number of initiatives around recruitment, interviewing practices, etc. We have also been working closely with the Law Society on work experience opportunities, and I think we’re the first firm to commit to doing that through the Scottish Ethnic Minority Lawyers Association, which we stuck up a good partnership with, and we’re really supportive of, and also another initiative called Prime, which is about opening access and inclusion to people and to push that agenda forward, as well. 

So, there’s already a number of things in training and we didn’t want them to be parked just because the pandemic was in place. It was still really important for us to push that forward. We’re a Stonewall Diversity Champion, and we have an internal network called Be Proud, which is the firm’s network for LGBTQ plus staff and allies as well. So, they continue to do lots of awareness-raising and we’re shaping up a really inclusive environment for colleagues within the firm. That’s all still being pushed on by our HR department which is good. 

“It’s really about taking something which potentially some people feel awkward about discussing and saying “Well, we need to normalise this. It’s a fact of life””

I just give you a flavour of some of the other things we’ve done then, and how these come about sometimes. The head of our employment team, Mandy Laurie, last year had actually written a blog about her views on menopause in the workplace, and then the importance of that from an employment law point, and really using her own experience to help inform clients. The response was so overwhelming that actually, it led us to host meetings with clients and contacts to discuss the importance of menopause in the workplace as an issue and how it can be tackled, and what were the best and most effective strategies for tackling that in the workplace. We ended up condensing all of that learning from clients into a thought leadership paper, which we then distributed to clients and contacts and the media. It’s really about taking something which potentially some people feel awkward about discussing and saying “Well, we need to normalise this. It’s a fact of life”, and, you know, there are policies that you can put in place that can really help individuals who are going through the menopause and create a genuinely menopause-friendly workplace.

So, we’ve always tried to do that, you know, where things have become issues for clients we like to actually turn that inward a little bit and say “Well, what can we do to help with this as well?” And how can we be a force for good in changing this across the business landscape? So, yeah, I think lockdown really threw some of those things into perspective and raised them up the agenda. So, it’s something we’re very aware of, but there’s always room for improvement. We’re constantly looking to collaborate with partner organisations and ensure that those internal processes are as inclusive and accessible as possible. 

James: Yeah. Well, I think that’s very much a part of it. The way that you seem to approach these issues is not necessarily an exercise and ticking boxes. It sounds like you want to run the company in a certain way, and that comes with certain responsibilities. For example, it seems to me like the Burness Paull Foundation, is something that just kind of came about, because that was the best way to do things. Is that kind of the right impression or is there perhaps another sort of approach that you’re taking that’s leading progress in all of these fields at the same time?

Graeme: I think you always hope to try and progress things as much as possible in all areas, but I think that the reality is that certain things need more focus than others at certain times. So, I think you have to be pragmatic about that and say “If this really matters to people, how can we best deal with this?” But you have to genuinely do it. 

“If there’s not a genuine commitment to doing it long term, I think people get found out”

I think where companies of any type can be found out very quickly is if something suddenly becomes big in the media, and they then rush out and do something to be seen to be ticking a box and I think employees see through that sort of thing. If there’s not a genuine commitment to doing it long term, I think people get found out. I don’t think that’s necessarily reflected in a healthy workplace culture, but I think if you’re empowering employees and colleagues to lead on that, rather than it being imposed from the top down, people understand that if they bring something to the table, not only are they going to get listened to, but actually some sort of action is going to take place, and I think I can be a real force for good in terms of workplace culture, and people understand that it is an inclusive workplace and there’s space for people of all backgrounds and they can actually encourage change. 

“People are very choosy about who they work for these days, and it’s not necessarily pay that’s the differentiator”

I think that’s something that from a recruitment point of view that actually can be a huge tool as well. Somebody asked us recently whether doing these things was a need-to-have, or a nice-to-have, and we would take the view that they are a need-to-have. People are very choosy about who they work for these days, and it’s not necessarily pay that’s the differentiator, a lot of the questions we get when people are thinking about joining our firm is about our commitment to CSR etc, and that can be the differentiator. A lot of people want to understand that they’re working for an employer who actually will do something about these things and will tackle them, and it has certainly helped us recruit sometimes from sometimes much bigger organisations where people maybe felt that they couldn’t impact change in quite the same way, but actually they can get actively involved in things here and make it since as a result of that. 

I think there’s any tangible business return on doing this. I think it helps attract talent to your organisation, I think it helps retain talent within your organisation, because you know, they have a stronger bond with their employer and are able to contribute to change. So, you know, I don’t think it is a nice to have, I think if you want to build something long term it is a need-to-have.

James: Well, that certainly is music to my ears, and hopefully the majority of businesses can be convinced of that in the near future. Is there anything in particular that you guys do to review your progress on all of these fronts? I mean, obviously you have things like the Gender Pay Gap Reports being pushed forward in the last few years, particularly. But is there more of an overarching approach to how you review things, maybe the Triple Bottom Line, for example, or anything like that? 

“A lot of it is about having regular check-ins with the partners that you work with and signing yourself up to something where they are going to come back and benchmark you and your progress. That helps to create urgency, and it helps to create accountability”

Graeme: I think the biggest thing for us is to always try and engage with partners that we’re working with in many of these areas to assess our progress. I think it can be really difficult when you’re trying to do the day job, especially in a line of work as busy as the legal sector, to have that objectivity, so a lot of it is about having regular check-ins with the partners that you work with and signing yourself up to something where they are going to come back and benchmark you and your progress. That helps to create urgency, and it helps to create accountability. Therefore, you don’t get lulled into any sort of false sense of security. 

So, yeah, at a high level the board are very aware of whether we are pushing forward a number of these areas, but equally, we want to embrace the fact that we want to be held accountable by partners, and for them to be able to say “Well, actually you’ve done okay there, but this could be better”. That’s happened in a number of areas, you know, Stonewall, who we are partnered with, their Quality Index is a really clear monitor of how you’re doing there and how you can improve, so that’s something that we’ve made strides in, but we can still do much more, and improve with their guidance. 

So, I think it’s two things. I think that commitment to it has to come internally from the highest levels, as a firm you want to improve, you want to do something about these areas, and then be honest enough to open yourself up to scrutiny with partners and take best practice from those people who are working in those areas and see how it can be applied within the firm, as well.

“People really do want to know what kind of company they’re working for”

People really do want to know what kind of company they’re working for, and I think being able to do that with partners, to show your progress, it really does help create a productive and positive internal culture. 

James: Yeah, exactly. That makes a lot of sense in terms of how you can actually respond to and rise to the challenges that you set yourselves, which kind of makes it a bit more tangible.

One of the other questions I was intrigued by was just what you were doing in terms of carbon measurements?

Certainly, as you mentioned, there are some big companies in the world at the moment who are making grand statements about their commitment to climate change, however, sometimes it can be a bit of a murky world in deciding, well, are we a net carbon zero company? It’s a bit hard to decide. 

Graeme: I agree. I think that is an issue. Some people have made big claims about it. Is it something we are aware of? Absolutely. I don’t think it’s something that we necessarily have totally landed on in terms of what is the best way to measure that, and if we have to, what’s the best way to offset that as well. I think getting agreement on what that looks like is really challenging. 

I think, however, what the pandemic has done, is potentially show that if a meeting before had been held on, let’s say on a six-monthly basis, and it was in the US with a certain client, going forward, that’s probably unlikely to happen in person because the benefits to both sides of doing it by video call are so obvious, and they’re tried and tested. Those relationships have worked just as well doing it this way as meeting in person.

” I think lots of other companies will use a lot of the learnings from the pandemic to really help push forward environmental policies”

So, I think lots of other companies will use a lot of the learnings from the pandemic to really help push forward environmental policies, and I think that it’s already become something that’s sharply focused through technology opportunities and is becoming an issue that people are having to think very hard about, too. In some respects, the pandemic has given them the perfect test scenario. 

Another good example is conferences. Whether they’re happening in Scotland or somewhere else in the UK and abroad, they’re fantastic networking opportunities and it is great to meet up in person and do that face-to-face, but so many conferences have switched to be virtual and are hugely successful and attract people from all over the world, at a time that suits them without any environmental impact whatsoever. So, I think that will be one of the things that really sticks going forward. It’s that real question mark when it comes to potentially meeting a client in X country. Do we actually physically have to go there, or can it be done using technology? Whereas before, the default position for many business would have been “We have to have that face-to-face meeting because it’s better”. I think that probably has changed in the last six to nine months, and I think that’s going to be a positive thing from an environmental view moving forward.

James: Absolutely. I mean, the environmental impact of using a little bit of cloud storage is probably not even a whole percentage point of just one plane ticket. So, it’s certainly one of the silver linings.

Thank you very much for all of this, Graeme. It’s been absolutely fascinating speaking with you.