Charting new courses in law and business

Insight November 28, 2022

As business schools take on the seemingly antithetical task of questioning capitalism, law schools have followed suit, asking, what rules and regulations will be necessary for future lawyers to learn as they seek to advise business leaders. An article in The New York Times by Emma Goldberg, “Have the Anticapitalists Reached Harvard Business School?” describes a growing interest in corporate social responsibility at U.S. business schools. This move “to rethink capitalism,” Goldberg writes, is “a curriculum shift at elite institutions that reflects a change in corporate culture as a whole.” One leading voice profiled in the piece, Harvard Business School Professor Debora L. Spar, began teaching “Capitalism and the State” during the pandemic. Notably, Spar and her newly launched Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society, partnered with Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, Harvard University’s Data Science Initiative, and Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, in September 2022 to host “Rethinking the Role of Business in the Public Square: Multistakeholder Engagement on ESG Commitments, Metrics, and Accountability.” The event, which attracted over 700 attendees from across, challenged participants to reimagine the corporate sphere in light of the complex and urgent issues facing the world today.

As Goldberg details, Spar is not alone in pushing for (or responding to student calls for) classes interrogating shareholderism, with classes at Wharton, Yale, and other elite schools diving into ESG, or Environment, Social, and Governance. And as the Harvard-wide conference made clear, legal, too, has a role to play. The recent report from CLP and EY Legal, The General Counsel Sustainability Study, indicates that questions about ESG are ending up on the desk of the in-house team. New law grads who may end up as outside counsel for organizations contending with such issues need to be prepared for the debates in play.

In the last few years, a number of classes have cropped up to lend a hand in such preparation. In Fall 2022, Harvard Law School offered “ESG: Corporate Ethics in the 21st Century,” taught by Carlos Portugal Gouvêa, William D. Zabel ‘61 Visiting Professor in Human Rights, that aims to force students to debate what the course description describes as a critical question: “Is ESG the ultimate technique to actualize corporate ethics, or is it too little, too late, and does not really capture the major ethical problems facing corporations in the 21st century?” Throughout the class, students dive into the role of regulators in reviewing sustainable financing instruments, the push to spur diversity in corporate settings, and more. Likewise, Columbia Law offers “ESG Issues in Business Transactions and Corporate Decision-Making” for experiential credit while UCLA Law offers “The Law and Economics of ESG.” Indeed, the need for lawyers to be intricately involved in business decision-making around ESG was a major impetus for the Reimagining the Role of Business conference, which brought together academics from public policy, law, data science, and business.

An October 2021 story in Reuters, “ESG is ‘mission critical.’ Can Paul Weiss get law schools on board?” further detailed the efforts of Paul Weiss to launch the ESG and Law Institute, which joins academic partners in enriching curricula around ESG for students hungry to discuss the emerging topic. Paul Weiss’s first partnership in this regard was Berkeley Law’s Business and Society Institute. Since 2021, they have also cemented a relationship with Howard Law

As the rules for the game on ESG change every day, what comes next for lawyers seeking to stay timely in their practice?