Lawyers have long held the role of trusted legal advisor, guiding on issues from sustainability to digitalization. But the profession is playing an increasing important role in maintaining trust and driving transparency in business, government and society, particularly in environmental and energy law, and global business, as clients work to address climate change.
This requires new skillsets and new ways to apply those capabilities. And that is forcing changes to the LL.M. curriculums that are training the future leaders of legal practice. Law schools are consistently evaluating their programs to assure they are meeting market demand, which is changing.
Donna Attanasio, Director for Energy and Environmental Law programs at the George Washington University Law School, says there’s a growing need to provide clients with new kinds of service. “Counseling clients on compliance and disclosure has always been an integral part of environmental and energy law, as it is in many other fields. But compliance is a baseline.”
An increased focus on sustainability
One practice area where the legal sector has recognized the need for such services is sustainability. The financial sector has raced to embrace environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. This means they have developed ESG standards that evaluate companies’ performances along these three paradigms.
However, an array of competing metrics makes this a tall task and increases the risk of “greenwashing”, or making misleading environmental claims. This is where lawyers can have a big impact — ensuring ESG clauses are built into contracts so that companies and their suppliers can deliver on their carbon emissions targets.
“There is growing recognition of a need for standards to fairly measure societal contributions that are above and beyond what the law requires,” says Attanasio. “Lawyers have a critical role in the process of developing standards for measuring, monitoring, and verifying these voluntary measures and counseling clients on appropriate disclosures.”
But while companies very much want to tout their successes, she says, “they must be cognizant of overstating their claims or making environmental claims that are merely greenwashing”.
New legal skills required
Providing these new types of legal services means that lawyers must acquire skills, such as diplomacy, negotiation and consensus building. This have been essential tools for any lawyer, but they are becoming ever more important in an era of trust and transparency.
“Litigation is an expensive option, both in time, dollars and good will,” Attanasio says. “Thus, the ability to listen, find common ground and build consensus provides value to clients.”
She also points to new skills because of the increasingly prominent role that lawyers can play in tackling systemic inequalities as calls grow for social justice, diversity and inclusion.
“The growing emphasis on equity and justice is raising awareness of the need for measures such as reaching out to all stakeholders early and providing equity in the process — not just the outcome — by bringing all sectors of the community into decision-making processes,” says Attanasio.
How are LL.M. programs adapting?
While the skills are not new, the ways in which they are applied are continuing to be refined. But how are LL.M. programs evolving to provide these skills?
Don De Amicis, co-director of the Center on Transnational Business and the Law at Georgetown Law in Washington D.C., says LL.M. programs can help foster trust by including foreign-trained lawyers from diverse cultures who learn through interaction and exposure, and by offering comparative law courses that describe and evaluate differing legal systems.
LL.M. courses in international business, in particular, address trust concerns in multi-faceted ways, including building and keeping the trust of clients, counterparties, government entities and other stakeholders.
“New courses such as International Business Compliance focus on public and private institutions, codes of conduct for employees and suppliers, and corporate governance best practices, which contribute to the building of trust with customers, employees and government regulators,” says De Amicis.
At Georgetown, in the environmental and energy LL.M. program, the topics of equity and justice were well-represented but not always highlighted. So the law school has worked with its faculty to better frame those topics.
One recently added course, a seminar on offshore wind development, is a good example. The professors approach the course by examining the diversity of the affected communities — and their needs — as well as the law.
“They demonstrate how successful companies, with their lawyers at the helm, navigate through new and evolving law, extend beyond mere compliance, and use skills such as negotiation and consensus building, while maintaining a high awareness of equity and environmental justice, to minimize litigation,” says Attanasio.
In sum, LL.M. students learn both the law and how to practice law.