Corporate law, consultancy and…sustainability. Not three words that are immediately associated with one another. But for Anthony Murphy, founder and managing director of Prime Advocates, a London-based not-for-profit law firm and social finance consultancy, the three go hand in hand.
As a not-for-profit, Prime uses the revenue from their corporate legal and ESG advisory work to sponsor “systemic changing programmes which remove the barriers that inhibit social finance and impact investing” as he puts it.
In other words, as he later says, “business for good”.
Murphy began down a more traditional path. After a law degree at Bristol University, he trained with the American multinational firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges, and practiced securitization and structured debt products.
“All the things which brought about the financial collapse in 2008” he readily accepts.
But through a secondment to the investment bank Citigroup, and several years practicing prime brokerage at J.P. Morgan, he was introduced to their large social finance group. Their ‘impact investing’ sought to maintain a ‘double bottom line’ in which investments are measured both for their financial and their social return.
“Enterprise with purpose” is how Murphy describes the social finance and impact investing sector.
His transition from mainstream corporate law to social finance was not planned, however. Murphy stresses the individual nature of entrepreneurship, and the importance of expert professional voluntary work in his sector. Beginning with pro bono work with J.P. Morgan, he began to build an ecosystem of likeminded partners eager to use their work for social impact.
Although finding his position shaping innovative financial products in the alterative markets rewarding, he wanted “a way to give back”. But Murphy rejects the idea of an epiphany moment. He stresses that there was no trumpeting from above that called him to start his own business. Instead a steady process of leveraging existing skills, expertise and contacts allowed him to transform an idea into an eight-year, and counting, market transformative project.
And as he modestly admits, they’ve done some “pretty cool things”.
One such project is the ‘Social Finance Hot Desk’ bespoke market-place. Murphy says that he noticed how leading law firms, despite wishing to carry out sustainable pro-bono work, were “inhibited by structural and process factors” from making it a reality. Partnering with seven such firms (and counting), Murphy’s team connects pioneering social enterprise initiatives to specialist legal advice free of charge,
“[We’re] happy that we’ve been able to support the marketplace” he says.
Another is his award-winning ‘Women of Impact’ accelerator. Now in its fifth year, the project supports innovative, award-winning, women-led and women-empowering social enterprises through upscaling support and mentorship. “We created a programme that would leverage our ecosystem, the professional services market and our expertise to help accelerate” often-underfunded women-led women-empowering social enterprises,” he says.
This is on top of the Osei Academy [www.osei-academy.com], a project to boost vocational education in Ghana, and i-Sen [www.i-sen.org], a project supporting early-stage MBA student-led impact initiatives.
That is not to say it has been an easy ride. As an entrepreneur, Anthony points out, you become immediately responsible for all facets of your business, in stark contrast to most corporate positions. But through learning new skills and adapting to a new environments he discovered a feeling of excitement common to many an entrepreneur.
And the transition from corporate position to a not-for-profit brought different challenges. Without external investments or a large capital pool, Murphy underscores the need for rigorous implementation both to generate income for philanthropic use and to use that income as efficiently as possible. In so doing, he keeps “purpose at the heart of what we do”.
But there is much more to be done.
Whilst Murphy says that there is now a strong recognition of the need for responsible investing within the world of mainstream investments, the application is somewhat lagging, and only recently have investors begun to “recognise the intrinsic value of the total outcome.”
With COVID-19 having revealed the integrated nature of our society, investment with both environmental and social impact may be moving up the agenda, but there is still a “marked line” between ‘traditional’ and ‘social’ investment, but it is blurring.
To those with existing social finance initiatives in and around Oxford, and indeed beyond, Prime Advocates provide expert consultancy and legal advice, while the Social Finance Hot Desk can get you in touch with specialist pro bono lawyers at some of the world’s top law firms. They are particularly focussing on providing legal support to social finance startups affected by COVID-19.
For those looking to get ahead in the world of social finance, Murphy advises, “start reading up, and understanding more about the sector. Follow the press…speak to your local ecosystem” Stressing the broad nature of the sector, and its cross-industry appeal, he notes the need to find subsections that are of passionate interest.
And who knows, one day it might lead to some “pretty cool things”.
By Edmund Kelly
And the Social Finance Hot Desk can be found at: