Head of Corporate Responsibility, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP
BFP: What do you do?
RB: I’m Head of Corporate Responsibility for Herbert Smith Freehills. I manage our relationships with a wide range of NGOs, think tanks, schools, and academic institutions both in a domestic and international setting. This ranges from a school five minutes walk from our London office to international NGOs and developing country governments. The focus of our work is quite broad – we cover everything from access to opportunity and social mobility to more macro issues like human rights, climate change, sustainable development and the rule of law.
I am also a trustee for a law and development charity called Advocates for International Development. A4ID was set up to engage the legal community in development issues and connect them with NGOs and governments to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals. It’s about recognising that law is a critical tool in achieving development aims.
In addition to this, I am Director of the Corporate Responsibility Group, which is the professional body for leading corporate responsibility and sustainability professionals in the UK. We provide training and development opportunities for people who are trying to help their business address some of these issues.
BFP: What is the best part about your job?
RB:I am really privileged to work with some fantastically intelligent and thoughtful people, both within Herbert Smith Freehills itself and amongst those we work with outside. I am lucky also to have a great team, with very different but complementary personalities and skill sets. Although we are a small team we are fortunate to be able to call upon people from within the firm at all levels of seniority and cross discipline that are as passionate about the potential for corporate responsibility as we are. Finally, for someone who is a bit obsessed about understanding the challenges facing our world, it's hugely rewarding to be able to make a small contribution to making it just a bit better.
BFP: What have been your greatest challenges?
RB: On a personal level, this year I completed a master’s degree in International Economic Law and Justice and Development. The degree was about trying to understand the role of institutions like the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank in a development context and in particular their impact on people, their relationships with civil society and corporations etc. It was a challenge because it is a broad and complex subject – combining law with philosophy, international relations theory and economics – and I did it part time. Also, I’m not a lawyer by background so doing a law post-graduate degree as well as managing a heavy workload and having a pre-schooler at home created quite a challenge! Although it was difficult at times, it was important that I did it. I wanted to invest real effort into getting my head round some of these issues. I think it's vital we understand how our world is governed and where we are failing. All of the issues we are facing, from pandemics to climate change, non-proliferation to the fulfilment of human rights can be looked at through this lens.
In terms of my work here at the firm, one challenge that stands out was a project where we provide a free legal facility for the government of Sierra Leone. It was challenging not because of the mechanics of providing such a facility necessarily, but because it had to go through a number of different hoops to get started. It took us a year and many meetings, presentations and papers to get it off the ground and I’m pleased and delighted we did it. I believe it has been successful and hopefully will continue to be useful, but at times we thought it was never going to happen. We stuck with it as we felt it was a very good touchstone for what we want to do with our approach to corporate responsibility more generally. We think there is a real opportunity within a law firm context to use corporate responsibility as a tool to contribute to society, but also to provide context for the work we are doing with our clients and help us to better navigate the markets in which we are operating.
BFP: How have you overcome these challenges?/ What is the secret of your success?
RB: I don't know if I feel particularly successful, but I am still here and so in my view, I think resilience is pretty critical. I have been doing this kind of work now for 9-10 years and I have seen it change enormously in this time, particularly in the last few years. We’re seeing more corporations recognising that sustainability is a critical part of their business. That understanding that corporate responsibility is not only about addressing potential reputational risk, it’s actually about identifying opportunities, working with governments and NGOs to address social and environmental challenges, and doing so in a way that is good for business in a commercially viable way. Even in our case we have seen potential for new service lines and new ways we can support our clients in a way that also reflects the work we’re doing in CR and sustainability. For example, the work of Professor John Ruggie on business and human rights, as well as new developments around social entrepreneurship, impact investing- those areas where the social and the commercial collide in a productive way- have all been important drivers.
This methodology is maturing and that is quite exciting, seeing that change keeps you going. On a day-to-day basis you may still be doing largely what you were doing a couple of years ago, but you can see subtle changes in recognition internally that there is more to this than some nice pictures on the website or a feel good factor. It is actually about how we support our business and help it to grow, how we develop our own people and how we support our clients.
BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?
RB: I generally advise people to survey the whole landscape; it’s not just limited to the big names from the FTSE100. There is a much broader landscape out there. If you want to help business fight poverty, you don’t necessarily need to do it from within a blue chip corporation. You may do it working for an organisation like BFP, a think tank, an NGO or an investment fund etc. People often just think of those we see on the high street, but there is a much larger group of players out there.
Getting experience of business is going to be useful, even if your first, second or third job is not in corporate responsibility. Its important to be commercially aware, and you can get that in most jobs within a business.
Grow your understanding on the issues; spend time attending lectures, seminars, events. There is lots of that on offer, particularly in the bigger cities around the world. In addition to BFP, in London we have great organisations like The RSA and Chatham House – both of which publish a lot of material online, and you have the TED facility of course, Intelligence Squared, etc. Be humble about your level of understanding and accept it’s a messy world we live in. It will take time to get a handle on it and find the way that your skills can help to untangle the mess.
Build and use your network- going to these events will also help you meet people, and network. It will help you get an idea of what’s worrying them and how you can help. As well as being in a better position to hear about opportunities.
BFP: Finally; what do you hope to get out of being part of the BFP community?
RB: What I get out of BFP already is that I think it is a fantastic resource, when I get the emails or the LinkedIn updates there is always something in there that I might have missed elsewhere and that for me is vital. Around these issues there is huge amount of material being published, which can be daunting, and it’s useful to have a place where it is aggregated.
I’m not sure I’ve used it as effectively as I could as a network resource, I have attended the events but I could do more to participate in discussions and meet people virtually.
Thank you to Richard Brophy for taking the time to do this interview.
Read previous Member of the Week interviews here.