Law Schools Place a Sharper Focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)

ESG and political questions can have huge ramifications for a firm’s image, its regulatory relationships and even its profitability

Whether they work in-house in top corporations or in private practice at  leading law firms, attorneys are coming under pressure over environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters. General counsel are facing demands from their customers and employees to take a stand on touchstone social issues — from climate change to voting rights and racial equity. At the same time, top law firms are having to help their clients navigate increasingly politicised business activities.

For law schools and their flagship LL.M. programs, this means having to adapt their curriculum to place a greater focus on ESG and political questions, which can have huge ramifications for a firm’s image, its regulatory relationships and even its profitability.

Melbourne Law School in Australia, for one, has launched a Master of Environmental Law, which focuses on legal issues such as in water law, climate change law and general planning and development.

Developing knowledge and understanding of ESG often requires that LL.M. students are informed about both domestic and international developments, says Professor Margaret Young from Melbourne Law School.

Her students are urged to reflect upon questions such as: how are the environmental and social values of citizens, consumers and investors supported by law?

Young says: “We encourage students to choose between a cross-section of domestic and international subjects. We also appoint visiting international faculty to teach into the program, which helps expose students to laws and practices in other jurisdictions. The pandemic has interrupted the travel plans of some of our visiting faculty, but many have been willing to conduct their classes online.”

‘Great enthusiasm’ for ESG education

Law students are responding with great enthusiasm to the growth of ESG, according to Sara Colangelo, Director of the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center. “Many of our students are eager to center elements of sustainability and social-responsibility in their legal work,” she says.

Wrapping elements of social-responsibility into coursework across multiple disciplines has been a long-standing tradition at Georgetown Law. The school offers classes specifically devoted to ESG in its corporate, business, and financial regulation course portfolio, as well as classes on specific dimensions of ESG such as sustainability and a just energy transition in its environmental and energy course portfolio.

For ESG courses a significant focus in LL.M. curricula is on how lawyers can clean up supply chains. The LL.M. Commercial Law Program at Erasmus School of Law in the Netherlands has added a variation in Maritime and Transport Law, for example.

Frank Stevens, who directs the LL.M. Commercial Law Program at the Erasmus School, says that lawyers can play an important role in helping multinational companies to maximize their sustainability credentials and meet their climate or social pledges by renegotiating supplier contracts and managing regulatory compliance.  

“ESG commitments are becoming more important and more binding,” Stevens says. “In the near future, every medium and large sized company will need to at least think about its supply chain and how it wants to relate with its supplier. This will therefore be a matter of interest for many in-house lawyers working for these companies.”

He adds that, as these commitments mature into statutory obligations, there will also be opportunities on the regulatory and enforcement side. “These statutes will need to be drafted, promulgated, checked and enforced,” he says.

Fulfilling and rewarding careers

When it comes to the career outcomes of such programs, the prospects for fulfilling and rewarding work are bright.

“Significant opportunities are appearing in Big Law settings, with firms either tapping environmental and regulatory/compliance attorneys to provide ESG guidance to clients or creating independent ESG practice groups,” says Colangelo at Georgetown. “Many in-house attorneys in traditional business roles must now consider dimensions of ESG, as well.”

For LL.M. candidates who are looking for a purpose, in-house legal teams are a good place to make a great impact, since many have been relied on by their companies to respond to the pandemic and drive diversity, inclusion and social justice in the workplace.

“I think that in-house legal teams have the ability to greatly impact the workplace, and therefore society, but I don't necessarily believe that in-house teams are the place to make the most impact,” says Rebecca Moor, associate director for professional development at Boston University School of Law.

“Fighting the pandemic, driving diversity and encouraging social justice are very complex issues, and require a wide variety of stakeholders -- including private companies and governmental organizations and individuals -- to succeed,” she adds.

Val Myteberi, associate dean for graduate programs at Cardozo Law in New York agrees. “All law graduates and lawyers can and should play an impactful role in driving diversity, inclusion and social justice in the workplace, no matter where they land in their jobs: whether they’re working in government, in-house, or at a law firm,” she says.

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