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Boardroom2030: Bates Wells balances social and environmental justice

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 13 Dec 2021

In future-proofing its business, law firm Bates Wells has also created a new service line, proving that sustainability can make good business sense.

Bates Wells became the first UK law firm to certify as a B Corp – a growing group of businesses that aims to balance purpose and profit – in 2015. Now it is focusing its efforts on its Boardroom2030 commitments. These are pledges to consider the firm’s future in terms of social and climate challenges within its own governance and operations.

Besides the obvious benefits of being a B Corp (independent verification of its environmental and social credentials) and Boardroom2030 ally, one other clear benefit for Bates Wells has emerged.

As a frontrunner in adapting to the new and vital business mantra of ‘balancing purpose and profit’, the law firm has sagely created a new service line for itself – advising other professional services firms and clients about how to understand the requirements of being a B Corp and support them by sharing their own experience of operating sustainably.

Angela Monaghan, Purpose and Impact Lead in the business team at Bates Wells, says: “More and more clients are coming to us specifically because we’re a B Corp. 

“Since around May, I've probably talked to about 40 organisations just off the back of the fact that we’re a B Corp, and they’re interested in what that means. Not all of those have translated into clients, but quite a lot have.”

The firm began its Boardroom2030 initiative in November with a company-wide event hosted by the chief operating officer. The event began by framing the challenges of the climate emergency to the planet, society and the firm. It involved a panel of expert speakers setting out what the current situation was in terms of the climate, the climate emergency, the IPCC report, COP26, and “where we need to be as a firm to support an equitable transition to net zero”. 

The three expert speakers on the panel were a Bates Wells lawyer who was involved in drafting the Better Business Act, an Extinction Rebellion activist and a representative from thinktank Green Alliance. The Better Business Act aims to amend section 172 of the Companies Act to embed a commitment to wider society and the environment into the DNA of every UK business.

Two weeks after the initial event, the law firm staged a second event, a firm-wide, internal hackathon. At this event, staff were encouraged to apply the information from the first event to answer three core questions: how the firm can future-proof its services to reach 2030 goals and how to support its clients to do the same? What governance needs to be in place to achieve this? And lastly what, as an individual, can each Bates Wells employee do to make a difference in work to address these challenges?

“We quietly already do loads around sustainability, social justice and internally ensuring our firm is inclusive. We’re already quite good at talking about our actions on climate, and I want us to use that knowledge and experience to influence others to do the same around social justice. I want us to begin to talk to our clients about these issues and make suggestions that will drive a shift,” Monaghan says.

Bates Wells, whose clients include charities, social enterprises and purposeful businesses, has already reviewed its supply chain to understand its core suppliers and how they perform against certain standards such as modern slavery, child labour, living wage and diversity. They already report to B Lab, the UK’s arm of B Corp, on this information to ensure their accreditation.

The 250-employee firm has developed a code of conduct for its operational suppliers, such as cleaning services, to ensure high standards in procurement. This governance work has led to its being offered as a service for clients that want to build in net-zero provisions for suppliers in contracts. The aim is to ensure firms can measure and report on their supply chains.

In its latest iImpact report, the firm outlines how it works to foster social justice through pro bono work. Social investment is also high on its priorities: in collaboration between organic supermarket Better Food and ethical bank Triodos Bank the firm worked with both parties to help set up an ethical bond with Triodos to support the supermarket’s expansion. 

In response to the pandemic, Bates Wells also developed several fixed-fee offerings, such as a COVID-19 Lease Review and a COVID-19 Rent Concession service. Fixed fee was reassuring for businesses facing financial uncertainty during the pandemic.

Another advantage to nurturing a business that cares about its purpose as well as its profit is in hiring and retaining staff and attracting clients.

“Gen Z will put their money where their mouth is. They are interested in working for businesses that have purpose and buying from businesses that have purpose. That puts us in a great position because we attract talent and punch above our weight in terms of what we can pay people and who we can retain,” says Monaghan.

Regulators are increasingly requiring larger organisations to report on the impact their businesses have on the environment and society in which they operate, and investors are keen to know a business’s environmental impact. Investors are also savvier these days about greenwashing – the act of misleading consumers about a company’s green credentials. 

For Bates Wells, the act of nurturing a sustainable business is in line with their values and makes good sense. It is also a case of recognising changing societal and client needs, and ensuring the business is on a firm footing for future generations.

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