Strategic Support for In-House Counsel in This Social Age

A global health care crisis and confronting longstanding racial justice issues, together with a broader conversation about environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibility, has forced organizations to evaluate the consequences of their business decisions. Indeed, enhanced public scrutiny is raising the alarm for companies to adopt socially responsible business practices that will satisfy investor and customer demands. This moment in time presents an opportunity for in-house counsel—lawyers now have a chance to champion civic-minded, sustainable changes in our organizations that benefit our companies’ strategies and bottom-line as well as the society in which we live and work. Here, we discuss three ways in which attorneys can demonstrate our ability to contribute to evolving practices and policies by leveraging our unique legal and business knowledge and skills to advance ESG and other corporate responsibility initiatives. 

Do Your Homework, and Everyone Else’s Homework. As an attorney, you are likely one of the best researchers in the room. Your research skills will prove useful in constructing a legal frame that captures issues that arise in this social climate. Although ESG, COVID-19 and racial justice movements present new issues, these issues are not novel. Businesses have always created new frameworks for assessing risk and growth opportunities in response to the then-current social age, and it may be helpful to revisit how companies navigated social changes in the past to inform how your corporate initiatives could address societal needs in the present. For example, in the wake of the dot-com bubble, investors and executives promulgated sweeping oversight measures to improve transparency. Similarly, following the Great Recession, industries adapted to new regulatory regimes to strengthen their finances and investments. Where possible, research approaches courts have used to resolve ESG-related conflicts. When the legal question that needs answering does not invoke sufficient litigation history, secondary sources can supplement your analysis. By recommending actionable solutions backed by research and calibrated based on business objectives, you will establish yourself as an invaluable contributor to significant discussions about sustainable change.

Janelle B. Smith

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