The Lawyer's Role in Advancing Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability

The Lawyer's Role in Advancing Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability

Olga’s Take: Lawyers Should Get On Board with Corporate Responsibility

I recently attended the Inside Counsel Think Tank on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability. This three-day event was organized by Berkeley Law’s Initiative on Corporate Responsibility, founded by Berkeley Law Alumnus Amelia Miazad. Berkeley Law worked in close partnership with The Aspen Institute’s Justice and Society Program, The United Nations Global Compact, and Linklaters to plan this seminal event. The program was organized as a small seminar-style convening, led by sustainability experts from academia and NGOs. This format led to thoughtful and in-depth exploration of emerging issues in sustainability.

As I was surrounded by thought leaders including general counsel and inside counsel from Nestlé, MasterCard, Patagonia, HP, Varian, PepsiCo, I had a transformative learning experience which changed how I now see my role as general counsel.

Here are my top takeaways, in no particular order:

Sustainability is part of, not separate from, the in house legal strategy. They are one and the same because the general counsel represents the company (not the CEO) and it is impossible to create a profitable company without advancing sustainability. Implementing corporate responsibility initiatives requires that a company focus on its long-term best interests, which align with those of society. It requires companies to go beyond ordinary compliance with the law.

Law schools must teach sustainability. This will equip future lawyers to represent their corporate clients by being strategic advocates for the long-term sustainability of their business. As Miazad explained, “Lawyers are increasingly asked to provide strategic advice on how their clients and companies can lead in sustainability. Often this requires lawyers to comply with more than just ‘hard law’ and includes compliance with international standards, norms, and a company’s own corporate responsibility commitments. Law schools must equip lawyers for this important work, which goes far beyond mere legal compliance. At Berkeley Law we are working with leading companies to develop curriculum in this emerging area.”

General counsel are well-positioned to guide and provide strategic advice about operationalizing sustainability. This benefits both general counsel and their companies. According to the “Guide for General Counsel on Corporate Sustainability,” written by Linklaters and The United Nations Global Compact, general counsel “are increasingly using corporate sustainability to articulate the value proposition of the in-house lawyer.” Specifically, “General counsel are using the language of corporate sustainability to capture the value they are adding across a broader range of business issues.” This helps them become more engaged partners to the business. Moreover, sustainability initiatives also allow general counsel to leverage their roles and proactively drive corporate good citizenship. They have become more connected and aligned with the corporate strategy and more embedded in the business. 

Every company will face a sustainability issue. It may be related to human rights, diversity and inclusion, corruption, right to water, health and safety, child labor, working conditions, environmental practices, cyber security and privacy, or something else. What often separates the companies that recover and grow in the process, from those that suffer, is transparency, and often “radical transparency.” Nestlé and Patagonia’s efforts to address their supply chain issues are clear examples of such transparency. Rather than trying to address the issue through legal compliance, both companies partnered with an NGO, Verité, to disclose the forced labor in their supply chains and commit to implementing a plan to remediate it.

Corporate Responsibility is also an opportunity for companies and their general counsel to be creative and proactive. For example, the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth uses an innovative process of data philanthropy to tackle social inequality, access and justice problems.

Ultimately, as many attendees agreed, “It is always easy to say ‘No.’ but the long-term best interests of the company are served by saying ‘Yes.’” corporate responsibility can no longer be an afterthought or an add-on to an overall legal strategy. The strong companies – the ones that will rise to success and truly shape society – are the ones that fully integrate collaborative, creative, and transparent sustainability efforts, which requires informed and engaged general counsel. And as corporate responsibility becomes increasingly important, in-house counsel and general counsel must step up and say “yes” to developing and leading these initiatives.

Katia’s Take: Though I didn’t attend this informative event, I couldn’t agree more with Olga’s takeaways. In this day and age, it’s nearly impossible to turn on the news without running into issues either directly or indirectly related to corporate responsibility and sustainability. As technology makes it easier than ever for consumers to invest their dollars in companies focused on doing the right and socially-responsible thing, companies must go beyond mere rhetoric in formulating their corporate responsibility and sustainability strategies. In-house counsel have a unique opportunity to, at a minimum, involve themselves in this effort. In reality, in-house counsel are ideally positioned to lead the charge given their ability to work in all areas of a given corporation.

This article was originally published by Above the Law

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