Building a Better Society Track Leader: Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Published: February 2, 2022

Kathryn Szymczyk

Kathryn Szymczyk (Gowling WLG, Canada)

For brands, corporate social responsibility (CSR), environmental, social, and (corporate) governance (ESG), and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives “will almost always be controversial: it is going to be too much and too fast for some and too slow and not enough for others,” according to Kathryn Szymczyk (Gowling WLG, Toronto, Canada).

But, whether at a fast or slow pace, embracing these initiatives is something brands are and should be getting used to, in large part in response to demands from both consumers and employees.

Building a Better Society Through Brands is one of the educational tracks at the 2022 Annual Meeting Live+. Ms. Szymcyzk is the track leader and a member of the 2022 Annual Meeting Project Team. Sessions on this track will take place in person on May 2 and on the virtual platform on May 4.

In an interview with the INTA Bulletin, Ms. Szymczyk discusses how and why brands are accepting concepts that help build a better society.

Over the years, surveys have increasingly highlighted that consumers want to purchase goods from brands, as well as work at organizations, that align with their own beliefs. Based on this, what should brands be doing now to win over stakeholders?
From where I sit, there are two sides to this question. The first is: what do law firms need to be doing? As providers of legal services to brand holders, we sometimes forget that we too have a brand and must take into consideration these statistics just as much as our clients—the brand owners. I believe that the solution, however, is the same for both: it starts with being as consumer-centric and client-centric as possible. You have to know your clients and customers—the issues they face, their diverse backgrounds and situations, their day-to-day experiences—in order to align with their beliefs and values in a way that fosters trust and loyalty.


CSR and ESG are all about taking an innovative lens to growing our business.

Concurrently, law firms need to be looking inward. How a client experiences us is determined by the individual relationships they have with people within our organization. Our people bring our brand promise to life. We need to be walking the talk within our organizations, ensuring not only that there is diversity but also inclusion—that there is an atmosphere where people feel listened to and valued. If our people are not feeling valued, how can they be invested in delivering our brand promise to the client? One feeds the other. How you treat your people must be reflective of your brand promise.

Along the same lines, [with credibility and trust so closely linked to brand performance and growth], why does it become especially vital for brands to initiate or expand upon CSR and ESG efforts during periods of disruption—such as during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
It is important for brand owners, including law firms, to acknowledge the difficulties, worries, and obstacles faced by their customers and be seen as part of the solution, not the problem. Credibility and trust are supported by transparency and empathy.

We found that during the pandemic, our clients reacted favorably when we acknowledged the challenges we were facing and how we were overcoming certain obstacles. It led to a feeling of community. CSR and ESG are an acknowledgment that we are in community with our clients/customers. With social media and other windows into the way firms and corporations govern themselves, there is no faking it, which is where credibility comes in.

We are experiencing a generational shift. It started with millennials, who have a different set of buying criteria, and has expanded to almost all consumers aged 18 to 68. We are all seeking an intensely personalized experience. We want to choose how we receive goods and services in highly individualized ways. We want to see how a company is thinking and what they value in a nuanced way, through how they treat their work force, where they are advertising, how they are reaching out in the community, and what measures they are taking toward sustainability. That changes just about everything: how you market, how you design thought leadership and events, etc.

The Brands and CSR Survey Report created by the 2019 INTA Presidential Task Force found that “[w]hile some INTA members are already tuned in to these issues, there is a lag among members when it comes to recognizing the benefit of implementing a CSR program and making it public and/or fully capturing the benefits that such programs can bring. More work should be done to educate brands about the benefits of CSR and how to effectively leverage these benefits into increased brand value and loyalty. INTA, as the leading brand protection organization, is singularly situated to perform this task.” We plan to use a few of the sessions in the Building a Better Society Through Brands track to meet this goal.


I believe that the focus must be on building cultures that are okay with uncomfortable growth.

Given that you currently are a member of INTA’s Brands and Innovation Committee and that you previously consulted with IP firms worldwide to help build their capacity to be business development innovators, what do you see as the link between business development, innovation, and CSR?
Historically, CSR has been an area of innovation that has been a hard sell. A business model with multiple bottom lines is a relatively new concept. Businesses are starting to consider measures of success that are outside of “did we make more money this year than last year.” CSR is all about taking an innovative lens to growing our business. As such, business development, innovation, and CSR could not be more linked.

As part of building a better society through brands, what must companies do to change their culture as it relates to DEI, and how do you envision the future of DEI efforts at brands and law firms?
I believe that, finally, there is a close to universal acceptance of the concept that DEI within an organization is the fastest path forward to the best in innovation and the broadest market appeal. The aspect that firms and companies are left pondering is how to implement true DEI within their organizations to get these results.

What do you see as the potential risks and rewards of companies—whether brands or law firms—speaking out about CSR/DEI issues on social media?
It is nearly impossible to do CSR/DEI work in a way that avoids upsetting anyone. It will almost always be controversial: it is going to be too much and too fast for some and too slow and not enough for others. However, there is a lot to learn from companies that have taken a well-thought-out and strategic stand on issues, such as adopting “road maps” for sustainability.

At Gowling WLG, our Head of EDI, Shereen Samuels, speaks about having an “audacious goal.” In five to ten years, what is the difference you want to make? Once you have your “why,” as Simon Sinek calls it, and you have put some metrics and measures in place, you can enter initiatives fearlessly. The goal is to not fear controversy, but to simply be prepared to respond in an authentic way—grounded in your values—should it arise. You are then able to point to your “audacious goal” as the dream that is driving you, Shereen recently explained to me. This will also have the benefit of appealing to those looking to align themselves with companies that have beliefs and values similar to theirs, and it allows a company to show up with a more human approach.


So many aspects of the way law firms service our clients are changing for the better.

Can you provide a sneak peek at some of the issues that the Building a Better Society Through Brands track will be focusing on at the 2022 Annual Meeting Live+?
We are planning thought-provoking and practical sessions aimed at arming INTA members with information and insights they can apply in their day-to-day work. The topics will align with issues that are top of mind, such as consumer trust, inclusion, green initiatives, the overall importance of contributing to society, the evolution taking place at brands and law firms, and more.

What inspires your passion to build a better society, and how do you act on it personally and professionally?
After practicing trademark law for 13 years, I entered the business side of the law in 2011 because I believed that lawyers and law firms could be connecting and servicing our clients better and, in particular, bringing more empathy to our work. I think many of us were looking for the permission to do so.

This evolution has taken place in parallel with related consumer demands—not just in law but in all industries, as noted earlier. I am lucky enough to now be in a position to think about and implement the establishment of a more inclusive and globally coordinated effort to meet our clients’ needs. So many aspects of the way law firms service our clients is changing for the better, and it is exciting to be part of that change. It takes curiosity and a willingness to go somewhere uncharted. That’s a pretty terrifying and exhilarating place for a profession that has traditionally felt it had to know all the answers!

Learn more about the 2022 Annual Meeting+.

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