Lewis Silkin has a spot on the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies list, and their employees gave the organisation a positive score of 89% for their charitable activities. How does the organisation nurture a CSR culture at all levels? Penny Newman, director of people and knowledge, reveals to Katie Richard.
What does your role entail and who do you report into? How big is your HR department?
I am responsible for the HR and knowledge strategy of the firm. Mine is a true HR generalist role, encompassing L&D, employee relations, CSR and diversity, comp and bens, trainees, recruitment, compliance, management reporting, etc. There is a strong emphasis on change management and we work hard to ensure the HR team is delivering against strategy projects which will improve our business. I also head up our Knowhow team, where my role is more that of a facilitator as we have very capable knowledge professionals in every department.
I report to our managing partner, Ian Jeffery and am a member of the management board. We have an HR team of eight people, of whom three work part time, with two in a job share, so our FTE equivalent is 6.6.
You were only one of eight law firms on ‘The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For’ list. What sets your organisation apart from other law firms?
Our managing partner is a solicitor who also has an MBA and his is a full time management role. I am one of four directors on our team, and we work with Ian on all strategic and operational aspects of firm management. We all have a seat on the board which is invaluable. We have a high degree of autonomy and trust, which is quite unusual in law firms and business services staff are valued as contributors to the business rather than being regarded as an overhead. HR is a key function within the firm – I am heavily involved in all HR issues from partnership matters through to business services.
You received 89% positive score from your employees on encouraging charitable activities. Why is this such a strong focus for HR?
It’s actually a strong focus for the whole firm, not just something that is ‘owned’ by the HR department. While the HR team does take some responsibility fo rmanaging activity, we have a very active CSR committee (run by a partner and of which I am a member) which takes the lead in organising CSR programmes firm wide. Many of our CSR activities are suggested by members of our staff. The CSR committee acts as a two-way facilitator for our CSR programmes. The CSR committee reports to the board annually on CSR activity and agrees our forward strategy with the board.
How do you decide which charitable activities to take part in?
We have an annual all staff vote on the charity we will support for the coming 12 months. For a number of years we have supported Helen and Douglas House, a children’s and young adult’s charity based in Oxford. Most of our fundraising activity will support our nominated charity – for example, the CSR committee organises one big event each year. Activities have included a cycle ride to Amsterdam, and a panto in which a number of our people starred and the Three Peaks Challenge. Employees also get involved in other activities at their own initiative; for example, one of our secretaries organises the annual Jeans for Genes day, because she is a strong supporter of the charity.
How do you encourage employees to engage in these activities?
We give half a day annually to each employee for CSR activities, but we’re very flexible in allowing employees to undertake activities and there is strong support from the leaders of the firm. Our managing partner, a number of partners and other leaders in the firm took part in our sponsored cycle ride to Amsterdam, which raised a substantial sum of money for Helen and Douglas house.
You also received positive reviews for your social conscience, offering of youth employment experience, and support of local communities. What initiatives have you started for these causes, and what results have you seen?
We are signatories to the Prime Scheme, which is a commitment to providing good quality work experience in law firms to young people who don’t have access to the same opportunities as others. We organised a week-long work experience scheme in partnership with SpearHead and were pleased at the end of the scheme to be able to offer a job to one of the participants.
Now that you’ve been on the list for six years, do you have any future plans that will keep you in the top 100?
It’s important to note that we do what we do because we are committed to corporate social responsibility – we don’t put in place programmes because it will help us achieve listing in the top 100. We don’t take entry for granted but we try each year to focus on key themes which respond to the results of the Best Companies survey. This year, one of our themes is Walk to Wellness and we will be encouraging everyone to get more active. Among other activities, we’ll be trying to get 35 walkers (and at least three dogs!) to participate in the London Legal 10k walk with Buddy the pug, acting as the poster dog for the publicity campaign (last year we had 23 walkers and one dog, Mollie). We’re also celebrating the 10 year anniversary of our Oxford office with an alternative triathlon which includes punting and a pub quiz.
What advice can you offer other HR professionals who want to make their organisation a best place to work?
Get buy-in from the most senior levels, open as many communication channels as possible, set manageable, achievable objectives and aim to ‘stretch’ those as programmes progress. Embed CSR as an ethos, not a cynical set of activities to achieve an end game. Over the years in which we have been involved in the Sunday Times survey, we’ve listened very carefully to what our people have told us and responded to their feedback. We try to harness the talents of everyone in the firm, regardless of their job role. Our social committee is very active and the leading lights are a litigation secretary and our IT manager. And we like to have fun and celebrate our successes often by eating cake lots of cake!
Lewis Silkin LLP is a 62-partner commercial law firm with 320 staff based in London, Oxford and Cardiff. The firm has particular expertise in media, brands and technology, employment, reward and immigration, corporate and commercial, real estate and regeneration, and litigation and dispute resolution. The firm is a member of two global alliances – Ius Laboris, the global Alliance of employment law specialists and the Global Advertising Lawyers Alliance (GALA).