On September 15, 2022, the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, in collaboration with the Harvard Business School Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society, the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership, and the University-wide Harvard Data Science Initiative, hosted the conference “Reimagining the Role of Business in the Public Square.” Bringing together more than 700 participants from around the world and including speakers ranging from Satya Nadella, CEO and chairman of Microsoft, to Dina Powell McCormick, global head of sustainability and inclusive growth and global head of sovereign business at Goldman Sachs, to Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel emeritus at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the event sought to provide a forum to exchange ideas around making meaningful progress on ESG commitments, metrics, and accountability. The interdisciplinary conference, which kicked off with three perspectives on the role of business and ended with a panel of young activists discussing their strategies for change, demonstrated that real progress will ultimately depend on robust collaboration and partnerships between leaders from business, public policy, law, academia, and civil society.
The following day, the Center on the Legal Profession, in collaboration with Harvard Law School Executive Education, separately convened around 15 general counsels (and their associated environmental, social, and governance [ESG] teams) from leading technology, manufacturing, consumer products, financial services, consulting, and nonprofits for a day of in-depth discussions around the legal department’s role in addressing ESG. The interactive day centered on a live case study about Microsoft’s Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs Department’s reorganization and included interactive breakout sessions on the importance of adaptive leadership in effecting change.
These September events are key parts of the Center on the Legal Profession’s long-standing engagement with the changing role of the general counsel and in-house legal departments and how law firms and other legal service providers adapt to serve the evolving needs of their clients. We have reported on many of these issues here in The Practice.
In this issue of The Practice, we continue and extend on many of the themes from our September event, focusing specifically on the lawyers.
Revisit Reimagining the Role of Business in the Public Square
First, using data from a major study we conducted in collaboration with EY Law in early 2022, we explore why general counsel and in-house departments are increasingly at the center of their organizations’ ESG processes. As the data shows, however, while they are often charged with addressing ESG issues, they often lack the budgets and expertise to adequately do so. How will businesses and their legal departments need to adapt to address this challenge, one that many predict will only increase in the next few years?
Second, we shine a light on how law firms are adapting to better serve the ESG needs of their clients. Today, almost all major law firms have ESG practices and ESG partners and increasingly see ESG as part of their wider mission (including internally). But how does this play out in practice? And what are the controversies therein?
Third, we return to the September conference and provide readouts on seven concurrent thematic discussions held in the afternoon. Each of the discussions was led by substantive experts, who framed the interactive session with real-world examples and case studies. The sessions focused on Sustainable Finance, Workforce Equity, ESG Metrics and Indicators, the Role of the Board in ESG and Diversity, ESG Innovations in Emerging Economies, Public Statements and Engagement, and the Role of the Government as a Partner and Regulator.
Finally, Professor David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession, interviews Gillian Tett, chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large (US) of the Financial Times and cofounder of Moral Money, and one of the world’s leading experts on ESG and the business community. In the interview, Tett contends that while “people talk a lot about greenwashing … I think that 2022 was actually a year of ‘green hushing’ where companies are doing ESG work, but they don’t want to talk about it.” She goes on to argue that ESG requires more “lateral” as opposed to “tunnel” vision.
Put together, this issue of The Practice—the first published on its new web platform—continues the Center on the Legal Profession’s engagement with the importance of ESG for the legal profession, and the challenges and questions that remain.