Lawyers at the forefront of social innovation – yes, really!

Next week, TrustLaw will offer their first ever course specifically for lawyers on social enterprise and the legal issues around the sector. TrustLaw Director Alisha Miranda explains why lawyers are key to helping social enterprises run successful businesses and solve the investment readiness puzzle.

When you think about global hubs of social enterprise, Canary Wharf or the City might not be the first places that come to mind.  But I can tell you that deep inside the hallowed halls of law offices around London, behind those name placards full of commas and ampersands, beats the heart of social innovation.  Lawyers are playing a part every day to keep the social enterprise and finance sectors running smoothly and ticking along, as I am fortunate enough to be able to see on a regular basis.
I’m the Director of TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s programme that helps NGOs and social enterprises from around the world access super high-quality legal support – for free – from the best law firms and corporate counsels in 170 different countries and counting. Every day we get requests from social enterprises around the world who need help on anything from employment contracts, to intellectual property advice, or structuring their first social investment funds. And we find lawyers – usually pretty easily – who are happy to help them for free.
Through TrustLaw, we have been supporting social enterprises to access pro bono from day 1, even when it wasn’t as popular as it seems to be now. Pro bono support of the social enterprise sector is actually pretty enormous. In our first TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono, published earlier this year, 73% of respondent firms said they did some pro bono for social enterprises – while this was less than those that supported charities with their work (88%) it was actually more than what is sometimes seen as traditional pro bono, for individuals (67%). This backs up what I see in my work every day – that lawyers are excited about social enterprise, and see the value they can have in applying market based solutions to social change. 
Lawyers are not only a big piece of what social enterprises need to run successful businesses, but also are a critical key to the investment readiness puzzle, and one not often accessed. They can help social businesses professionalise, manage risk in a clear way, and prepare themselves for the days when the money comes rolling in.  And the benefits aren’t just for the social enterprises: firms not only see a huge value in doing this work pro bono but are actually increasingly launching commercial practice groups focused on the social enterprise space. As the market grows, everyone wins.
And yet – challenges still abound before we get to that rose-coloured utopia where every start-up social enterprise has their legal advice, free or not, from day 1. One big one is that while lawyers are certainly keen to support social enterprise, many of them lack enough of an understanding of the sector as a whole: the history, background, key players, market leaders, and challenges social businesses face. And what’s more, the law related to social enterprises and investment is changing rapidly and it’s all relatively new. There are still only relatively few lawyers who have enough knowledge and background to bridge the two worlds of the law and the social enterprise sectors.
Until now (we hope!). Next week TrustLaw will offer our first ever TrustLaw Training on Social Enterprise and Impact Investment. This is the first course in the UK specifically for lawyers on social enterprise and the legal issues around the sector. Among our slate of talented presenters we have amazing lawyers (from leading firms like Bates, Wells, and Braithwaite, Linklaters, and Berwin, Leighton & Paisner), ex-lawyers (like Paul Cheng from Shared Impact) and experts from the leading organisations in the sector today. These superstars will cover everything from the general  (Social Investment 101) to the specific (how do you structure a social enterprise in the UK?) with the aim of giving the lawyers in the audience a clear picture of the social enterprise world and the role they can play in it.
We are really excited about what this course will bring, and hope to run many more. You can still buy tickets before it’s too late. But in the meantime, next time you see that lawyer walking through Canary Wharf, suit on and Blackberry in hand, stop and take notice. They may just help you change the world one day.