Legal Operations

A Small Firm with a Major Social Impact

Scott Curran, founder and CEO of Beyond Advisers, discusses the nature of his social impact consultancy, how his experience at the Clinton Foundation informed his current venture, and what law firms and legal departments can do to recognize and expand upon their own social impact practices.

CCBJ: Please tell us about Beyond Advisers and what it does.

Scott Curran: Beyond Advisers is a full-service social impact consulting practice – in boutique form. Many people are still trying to understand what “social impact” means in this context, so it invites some intrigue. A simple definition for an audience of my brethren corporate lawyers would be that we take the best of what you’d get with a full-service corporate law practice and combine it with traditional consulting in the rapidly evolving social impact landscape. We have more than a decade of experience serving nonprofit social enterprises, the private sector, and cross-sector social impact initiatives at scale. Basically we put all of those things together in a small boutique with a small number of people, serving that space with a tool kit that combines all of that aforementioned experience. That’s what it means to be a full-service social impact consulting firm.

We tell our clients, “We are lawyers, but we’re not your lawyers in this case. We are consultants.” We’re marrying these very different but interrelated skill sets, along with the best advice, guidance and tools in the world, combining all that with the best ideas and efforts to change the world for the better.

The clients we serve primarily include: 1) nonprofits; and 2) private sector businesses that are trying to do good in the world with their business model. We work with law firms as well, which we consider part of the private sector. People tend to refer to the private sector as traditional businesses that are not law firms, but law firms are businesses and they provide products and services to clients – so we consider that part of the private sector. And the third area we serve is cross-sector partnerships. These are initiatives born from the work of all of the above, nonprofits working with for-profits, or working with government in various combinations. So we say nonprofits, the private sector and cross-sector partnerships. That’s what Beyond Advisers is – a social impact consultancy, full-service work based on unprecedented experience.

Five years after taking a job out of law school, you decided to pivot and pursue a master’s degree in public service. What was the motivation behind that decision?

I always knew I was likely to do something beyond being a corporate lawyer or a private law firm team member. I was always looking for what would come next. I went to law school in the late 1990s, which was a very exciting time because it was before the first dotcom bubble, and everybody got jobs afterward. The issue wasn’t whether you’d get a job coming out of law school, it was which job you would get. So going to law school opened up many, many doors. But I was definitely one of those people who wasn’t planning on having a traditional legal career. I entered law school thinking it would be a great, exciting, vibrant education, which would open a lot of doors, but I was always planning to look at what other doors might open later too.

I wound up falling into the traditional pattern that most law students naturally fall into, which is on-campus interviews, getting a summer associate position after my second year, getting an offer at a corporate law firm. So I became a corporate law associate, but I still had that desire to look for what else I might do hardwired into me. I soaked up every day of those five years as a corporate lawyer, not knowing where it would take me but knowing it was going to be helpful for whatever came next.

Recognize that you already have a social impact practice, whether you realize it or not.

I saw an opportunity to apply to a brand new graduate program that was offering the first-ever master’s degree in public service. I thought it sounded really interesting. As somebody who was deeply committed, throughout my life, to various forms of public service, I thought, “This could be an educational opportunity, just like law school was, that might open more doors.” I applied to the program, got in and went for it. I thought it would be an adventure. Life is more fun when we have adventures.

The program was at the University of Arkansas, Clinton School of Public Service, which at the time was the newest presidential school. So I went to Arkansas, for what I expected would be an 18-month visit, the length of the master’s degree program, with no expectation of staying in Arkansas. I initially had no intention of working in philanthropy, or for the Clinton Foundation, but that’s exactly what happened. As part of the public service program, I did an internship that introduced me to the Clinton Foundation. Then, when I graduated from the program, I took a one-year fellowship with the Clinton Foundation, in a role focused on rural philanthropy in pervasively poor parts of rural America, looking at how the foundation might create programs that would serve that part of our country. Halfway through the year, I began doing legal work which led to more and more of the same as the Clinton Foundation and corresponding in-house needs grew.

Ten years later, when I left the Clinton Foundation in 2016, I left as general counsel, with an in-house team of 16 people and about a dozen outside law firms supporting the global work of one of the fastest-growing, most diverse and dynamic global operating charities the world has ever known. I’m really proud of the work we did there. It was a heck of a ride.

Please explain what you think Beyond Advisers can teach other companies regarding social impact law.

First of all, that it exists. It’s a real thing and people are practicing it now, whether they realize it or not. There are law firms that are designing and building social impact practices. Remember, social impact is the broadest definition of a lot of work that is included underneath that umbrella. Nonprofit law is social impact law. Corporate law, serving corporate clients doing social impact work, is social impact law.

This kind of law is already being practiced, and it is increasingly blurring lines. You have nonprofits that are acting more like businesses, meaning they are seeking to create earned revenue models. Similarly, for-profit endeavors are acting more like nonprofits than ever before, by infusing social good into what they’re doing as a business. They’re doing good while doing well.

Social enterprises can be defined differently as it encompasses the “blurred line” space between doing good and doing well, but generally revolves around businesses that solve a social challenge with a market driven approach. Whatever the enterprise or entity type, they are all leaning on lawyers to help them navigate this space. People often say, “We’re going to do good in the world, but we’re also going to make revenue. Should I be a nonprofit or for-profit?” The answer is often: “it depends!”

But when it comes to law, and especially Big Law, which has such a big voice and such a big platform, they’re doing so much of this work already, so the first step is to recognize it’s happening.

That’s step one: Recognize that you already have a social impact practice, whether you know and have actively built it or not. And once you recognize that you have a social impact practice, you will increasingly be motivated to design, build and grow it as such.

Step two: Organize around what you are already doing, with clients that are already in the social impact space, whether they’re nonprofit, for-profit, a hybrid, a social enterprise, or a cross-sector partnership. Take a minute to look at what kinds of clients you have, and what you’re already doing to support them in their social impact work. I guarantee you’ll find something, with very few exceptions.

Step three: Market it! Tell the story of what you’re doing. It’s not just client services. It’s also what you, as a firm, are doing. Sometimes firms are making their own philanthropic contributions through their own charitable foundations or other giving strategies. Sometimes they have volunteer and service days – that’s a part of a social impact approach too. It’s not client service per se, but it is part of a comprehensive and engaging social impact footprint that matters to your team and clients alike. And that effort is not captured by “pro bono” in most cases, which is a really important point. Pro bono, in its traditional definition of free legal services, is amazing and awesome and historically it’s what most people in our profession refer to when asked how they do good. But it’s no longer a big enough construct to capture all that’s happening at law firms and with lawyers and their clients when it comes to social impact work. We tend to define pro bono as free legal advice, where we don’t send a bill, but that does not adequately capture all the social good that law firms are doing. That’s an extremely important point for us to recognize and organize around when discussing social impact in the profession.

Step four: Measure it. This is my call to the entire profession – measure your impact. Pro bono is a really important part of it, but like I said, it is no longer sufficient. I challenge the Am Law 100 to change the way they measure social impact, by adding a true social impact metric to how they measure the ways in which law firms do good. Pro bono alone is no longer sufficient. It can be the heaviest weighted factor, to be sure, and it should be a crown jewel of law firm social impact measurement, but it can no longer be the only jewel in that crown.

Recognize; Organize; Market and Measure for social impact. That’s my call to the legal community. Including, but not limited to, law firms. That’s where the greatest social impact journeys of our profession begin. And we’re happy to support anyone working toward that end!

I challenge the Am Law 100 to update the way they measure social impact.

You recently developed a social impact tool kit. What insights can you offer into that?

The tool kit is really just a manifestation of my five years of corporate law work, plus the 10 years of really expansive work helping to design, build, and grow the Clinton Foundation’s organization, operations, and programs infrastructure, which included nonprofit, wider philanthropy, and plenty of social enterprise work that we were doing in the early days before some of it even had a name or commonly understood definition. That entails a lot of the cross-sector work between the nonprofit and for-profit spaces, with these new and dynamic models, creating social enterprises that support social impact work, not necessarily intended for profit in most cases, but using these hybridized approaches to create sustainable and scalable funding mechanisms to support the work long-term.

When I was leading the in-house team at the Clinton Foundation, I realized that I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the department that was effectively an aggregator of tools, guidance and simplified approaches that supported social impact work at scale. The Clinton Foundation had about 14 different initiatives, including global health, climate change, international development, supply chain innovation, early childhood education, childhood obesity, women and girls empowerment, the work of the Clinton Center in Arkansas, a series of conferences that fell under the umbrella of the Clinton Global Initiative, and much more.

The tool kit we developed as an in-house legal team there had to support all of that different work, and all of the thousands of employees and volunteers who did that diverse work. We were a relatively modest team – about 16 people, not all lawyers. We ran the gamut of different functions, and then there were all of the outside law firms too. We had to support that team, which was very fast moving and wanted very simple answers – very usable, understandable tools that could help them do their work. The sun never set on that work. It was always in process, by virtue of being a global organization. That work was happening 24/7/365. The tools we deployed had to meet and serve a common set of expectations, so that we could be a well governed, compliant, legally sound, and efficiently operating organization.

What I realized was that we effectively produced this tool kit that can work for anybody, anywhere, with all our various partners all over the world. Knowing how to engage and support people doing the work, whether those are your employees, contractors, vendors, volunteers – we have to be able to equip that incredibly diverse, global team with the necessary tools to support that kind of work – from NDAs to MOUs, policies and procedures, and practical day to day operations that consistently worked and supported our vast and diverse global operations. It all had to work, and work well.

That’s what we refer to, generally, as the tool kit. It’s advice, guidance and tools themselves that help social impact initiatives, whether nonprofit, for profit, or cross-sector scale with clarity, confidence, and with simplicity at the core. That tool kit has proven to work, almost without fail, with the myriad of clients we’ve had the good fortune to serve over the past five and a half years – knock on wood! I don’t want to jinx anything! All of that experience, now serving A-list social innovators, including big brands, brains, and businesses. Now our goal is to make it more widely known, more widely available, and more easily actionable by any and every services firm (law firms especially included!) trying to help anyone and everyone “do more good, better!”

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