Tailoring CSR Strategies for Local Relevance and Global Impact with Jeseñia Brown, Senior Manager of Pro Bono and Corporate Social Responsibility at Shearman and Sterling

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.

In this episode of On Record PR, Jennifer Simpson Carr goes on record with Jeseñia Brown, Senior Manager of Pro Bono and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Shearman and Sterling, to discuss the most effective ways to maximize a law firm’s contributions to the communities in which it operates. Her work focuses on employee community engagement and volunteering, coordinating environmental and sustainability efforts, and charitable giving.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I am excited to welcome you to the show today to discuss CSR and the impact made by the work of teams and professionals like you leading these efforts at law firms. I was honored to witness the community impact you made during our time together at Lowenstein Sandler, during which you were an incredible team member for the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. I’m looking forward to diving into your work today at Shearman and Sterling.

Jeseñia Brown: Thank you. Our time at Lowenstein was amazing. I’ll always love that firm.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: Yes, I have fond memories and connections with amazing professionals just like you.

Jeseñia Brown: Same.

What does corporate social responsibility mean at Shearman and Sterling today?
That’s a great question because it depends on where you’re at.

At our firm, it encompasses our charitable giving, our employee engagement, and non-skilled-based volunteerism. That’s everything that isn’t legal, so it also encompasses any of our commitments that we’ve made – for example, our environmental and sustainability commitments. We’ve got those three-pronged approaches. I sit with our pro bono team because our pro bono is our largest contribution of social impact. Our pro bono practice is pretty big; it’s roughly 50,000 hours a year. That’s a tremendous contribution to the community.

Of course, we work collaboratively with our DE&I team and our wellness team. In other corporations, CSR would be all of those things under one thing, but we do have dedicated teams for each of those categories. Then, we all work together. With our environmental and sustainability commitments, I work closely with our real estate and facilities teams because they’re the people who actualize all of the commitments, endeavors, and goals. They are the people who make it happen.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: It sounds like it’s baked into the culture there because you’ve already mentioned so many incredible team members who support and are a significant part of these efforts.

Jeseñia Brown: It is baked in, but it’s definitely not as ingrained as some of the things like DE&I that have been going on longer. Pro bono has been a part of the fabric at the firm for the entirety of its 150 years. The social responsibility element of CSR is newer. My role was new; it started six years ago.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: It’s still kind of building a pathway for what this looks like.

Jeseñia Brown: Yes, and taking a lot of what we were already doing and had built up and just recognizing, “Oh, this is what we’re looking at and how do we measure it? How do we share it publicly and be transparent about it?”

Jennifer Simpson Carr: Building something pretty established, process-driven and intentional.

Jeseñia Brown: I think the intentionality is probably the biggest part because we didn’t have that before. We had these practices without the procedure or without the policies to back it up.

Shearman and Sterling is a global firm with employees in over 22 offices. What strategies do you use to generate and develop ideas for making meaningful contributions to the communities where your firm operates, and how do you bring those ideas to fruition intentionally?

We have about 700 lawyers. It’s always funny because at law firms, we arrive at headcount primarily by counting legal employees; we have a whole other set of 700-plus business services professionals. People always look at just the head count. For years, that was how the firm operated. We’ll give and we’ll contribute our pro bono time because that’s the most valuable time that we have. The intentionality came in when the firm said, “You know what? If we have a social responsibility professional, they’ll engage the entire second half of our employee base in making contributions and bringing to the firm’s leadership the values that that group has. What do they think is important? How can they make an important contribution to the community and bring that to light?” It helps us engage them because now we have this dedicated professional who’s saying, “Hey, you’re on the business development team, what do you care about? Are you really interested in contributing to hunger alleviation? Are you involved in your local organization? Do you serve on a board?” Helping to bring those values that our employees have helps us engage them.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s an incredible position to take. There is such value beyond just the legal work at the firm, which certainly is the primary revenue generator. It’s also important to recognize the talent that can be contributed by all professionals within the firm.

Jeseñia Brown: We try really hard to make sure that we also keep it localized.

All of our initiatives are global, but they’re localized. That’s the other part of it that helps us keep people engaged and bring ideas to fruition. Localize – what do you care about? Because what you care about in New York is not what you may care about in Singapore. What service looks like in Washington, DC may not be what it looks like in Abu Dhabi. Having local people who are feeding me ideas, initiatives, and opportunities. Then, they’re helping us actualize it, and it’s localized.

For hunger alleviation, we have this great initiative that we’ve done every year around Ramadan in our Abu Dhabi offices, and we have Iftar meals. I’d never heard of an Iftar meal until a few years ago, and now I know what it is. It’s the meal that they have to break fast, and we contribute meals. We have for years. It’s still hunger alleviation. It achieves the firm’s goals of contributing towards this, but it’s localized and it’s led by a business services employee in that office.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s incredible. What a way to speak to individual passions to keep people engaged in this great work.

How do you approach program evaluation and measuring the success of the impact that your initiatives are making?

That’s many-layered.

We’ll start with the first part, which is how we evaluate programs and nonprofits. Of course, we want to look at the need it’s serving.

  • Who are we working with?
  • Are they an established organization?
  • Are they reputable?
  • Do they have the capacity to actualize whatever it is we’re trying to do?

I worked in the nonprofit sector. One of my biggest pet peeves is asking for pie-in-the-sky things of small, tiny nonprofits and then expecting them to deliver just so that I feel good about myself. I always say to them, “If it can’t be done, just say so. If it’s not useful, tell me,” because if I’m making a donation they might be like, “We don’t actually need this, but we don’t want to tell you no because you’re a mega-firm.” I always try to have this conversation the whole time. Do you really need it? Is it really useful? And if it’s not, it’s okay. We try to make sure that whatever we’re doing is going to make a contribution, and the nonprofit can support it and the community actually needs it. That is evaluation.

In terms of measures of success – because community engagement has kind of multi prongs of what purpose it serves, we’re looking to start with employee engagement, or people provided with personal enrichment and professional development opportunities. That’s one prong. Are we serving the community and contributing positively to the place where we operate? That’s the other prong. Then the measures of success for us are whether we’re helping the nonprofit achieve its mission and whether we have actual engagement. Are people actually participating? Are they coming to the event? Is there a sense of pride in the work that they’re doing? Those are our measures of success. We look at the engagement level across offices and opportunities every year, and that’s mostly what we report, because we’re trying to see if people are enthused about it. Are they happy that they were provided an opportunity? We have a couple of policies that enable us to make sure we have a VTO (Volunteer Time Off) policy which lets people contribute to whatever cause they want. Every year, they have a full day off and they can use it however they like. We look at whether people are using the VTO. Are they also using the time for their firm-sponsored opportunities? Are we getting enough engagement numbers on there? And of course, working with their nonprofits. Did it contribute? What did you do with whatever we donated or the service we provided?

Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s fantastic and such a great way to measure whether your individuals are engaged.

Can you share an experience from your work that has left a lasting impression on you?

I’m really fortunate that I’ve had a few. Once we were helping with the mobile food pantry and we were handing out food. We had finished the shift that the nonprofit had set out for us, so we had already distributed everything. A woman arrives; she’s pushing a stroller with a child in it, and she’s holding a child. And, they’ve already closed down the pantry. They had already put up a barricade to say no one could be taken and of course, my entire team is like, “But, we still have food here. Can’t we just hand her food?” And they’re like, “Alright, one more.” They let her back in.

The woman comes up. The way that the line worked, we had all the volunteers handing out food. They were supposed to ask, “Would you like fruit today? Would you like a bag of vegetables today?” We try to give dignity to the food pantry process. She’s been asked each time. She’s third in and one of our team members looks up and could see the woman was a bit emotional. She looked at her and she goes, “Would you like a hug?” The woman didn’t say anything, she just nodded. My volunteer came around the front, and she hugged this woman. She embraced her in that deep, deep way. The woman just sobbed, and the whole team sobbed. You get these moments where people come home, they come back to the office, and for days afterward, they’re like, “That was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Jennifer Simpson Carr: Wow, I have chills and some tears. It speaks to the impact that you can have on people in this world.

Jeseñia Brown: The thing that has always been a takeaway for me is that I’m always surprised by how many people have never done service. And the firm gives them an opportunity to go out and they’re like, “Okay, I’ll do that.” Or a colleague says to them, “Hey, you want to come with me? I got that email from Jeseñia. You want to come?” And they’re like, “What is it? I’ve never done that.” Then, they go and they’re like, “I want to do that all the time.”

Jennifer Simpson Carr: That leads me to a question that I am sure some of our listeners might be wondering:

Shearman and Sterling is an AmLaw 100 firm. It has so many resources available and is so lucky to have someone like you leading these incredible efforts globally. How can our listeners think about scaling this to the right size for their law firm or organization?

It’s easy for us. When we sit down, it’s January, so we already looked at the whole year ahead. I sit down with our marketing and communications team and look at the entire year of days of note and build out what we’re going to do. It’s easier at a big scale.

I think that when you when you can, you can find a way regardless of your size, even if you’re just, you know, a five-person team. I have offices that are less than 10 people, and they’re not going to have an event every quarter. We’re going to have one event a year that we do that becomes our signature event. Perhaps it’s at the holidays or, thinking about cultural sensitivity, it’s at the holiday time that’s appropriate for that region.

It’s finding one nonprofit you want to work with, one charity that you want to work with, and one signature event that you want to do, whether it’s a walk for charity, an annual food bank day, or an afternoon. If it’s something that you can do on the weekend, you can do it with the families as opposed to doing it just with the team. Maybe it becomes a team-building exercise. Everybody goes out. You have lunch. You guys do something together for the community. The scale doesn’t have to be grandiose.

I would say the other thing to do is to think about what your skill set is. What do you have to offer? You guys are a PR firm. Maybe for you, it becomes like, “Hey, you know what? One time of year we’re going to provide our skills to a nonprofit and help them do a PR audit, “here are things that you can consider.” It just becomes your one-day thing. Maximize what you’re doing by thinking about your skills and value to the community, lining that up, and then making your one or two signature events.

Jennifer Simpson Carr: Those are great recommendations. Since Gina founded the agency, we’ve been fortunate here for it to be part of who we are as employees, and she’s also driven that as an organization. I think your answer is really helpful. When you put a name on something like CSR or ESG, all these acronyms, it feels so big, and it feels like a big undertaking. Just your story about the woman coming to the food pantry demonstrates that even a small effort can make such a big difference for people in our communities. Thank you for that insight.

There are endless opportunities for law firms to contribute, not only in the pro bono space but also in the skills of the business professionals throughout the firms.

What about looking forward in 2024? What are the greatest areas of need that you see where people can contribute?

We still have a huge access to justice gap. We all wish we didn’t, but for the entirety of my career, well over a decade, in law firms, there’s still an access to justice gap. We have a wealth gap that is expanding by the minute. Look at how things are. Costs are going up with inflation. The cost of living is going up and wages are not, which means that our primary social services needs like food and housing are still there and they’re growing. The middle class is getting smaller and smaller. Everyone is nearly one or two paychecks away, one horrible car payment or repair away from being on the poverty line. I would say that the most pressing needs are still the same, unfortunately.

In terms of trends, I think that firms are looking at accountability, transparency, and being able to report what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. That continues to be an area that is growing for this year. I like what you said about all the new acronyms. It does make it feel bigger because you think about it and you’re like, “Wow, what is this new space? We haven’t done anything here.” But when you break them down, you’re like, “We’ve always been doing this.”

Jennifer Simpson Carr: I hope that those listening realize that, in many respects, there are things that we do every day as people but also as organizations that are making an impact, and they do fall under all of these acronyms that have been created to give more meaning to the work that we’re doing.

I am so delighted that we got the chance to sit down and talk about the work that you are doing.

Jeseñia Brown: Thank you for having me.

Jeseñia Brown

Learn more about Shearman & Sterling’s commitment to corporate social responsibility: https://www.shearman.com/en/about-us/responsible-business

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeseniabrown/

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Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc. on:

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