LL.M. Courses Help Lawyers Clean Up Supply Chains

Lawyers are playing an increasingly important role in helping companies hit their ESG targets

Under pressure to improve the resilience and sustainability of their own operations, many organizations have stepped up their environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments. For example, many are pledging to reach full carbon emissions neutrality in the coming decade.

As organizations reassess their supplier networks, lawyers, especially those working in-house, are playing an increasingly important role in helping companies hit these targets.

In response, the demand for attorneys who specialize in supply chains is increasing, prompting law schools to offer a number of highly popular modules that cover these issues. Vanderbilt Law School in the US offers the Law and Business Track in its LL.M. program, which covers key concepts in supply chains and ESG such as contracts and compliance.

Stanford in California offers the LL.M. program in Corporate Governance and Practice that covers very similar ground.

Frank Stevens, who directs the LL.M. Commercial Law Program at Erasmus School of Law in the Netherlands, says that lawyers are helping companies to clean up their value chains.

“ESG commitments are becoming more important and binding. 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 interest many in-house lawyers working for these companies.”

And, as these commitments mature into statutory obligations, there will also be opportunities on the regulatory and enforcement side of the legal services market. “These statutes will need to be drafted, promulgated, checked and enforced,” says Stevens.

Lawyers working for these companies will need both a thorough understanding of both the possibilities and limitations of contract law and supply chains — two things the Erasmus School’s LL.M. in Commercial Law is purpose-built to cover. The program has four variations: Maritime and Transport Law, Commercial and Company Law, International Trade Law, and International and Arbitration Business Law. 

Underpinning all the tracks is a foundational education in commercial contract law, which underpins supply chains and connects the various entities along the chain.

Such knowledge is also becoming increasingly important because there is a push to make ESG commitments legally binding. In June, for example, Germany introduced the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, which obliges larger companies from 2023 onwards to audit their suppliers for human rights violations, under penalty of substantial fines.

There are clearly major risks for companies that fail to live up to their ESG pledges, underscoring the demand for lawyers who specialize in this area. “The risk for companies that get it wrong is loss of competitiveness,” says Miriam Goldby, director of the LL.M. in International Shipping Law at Queen Mary University of London. “These companies can suffer reputational damage if they are exposed as having used suppliers or service providers that engage in environmentally or socially dubious practices.”

Students undertaking the LL.M. program at Queen Mary acquire a thorough understanding of the field of shipping law and a strong grasp of applicable legal principles, including the relevance of legal conflicts and the importance of harmonization in this field. They also gain insight into current developments. For one, environmental matters have been part of the Maritime Law Landscape for a while. Issues such as marine pollution have led to important reforms at the international level, with mandatory insurance being adopted.

These measures are still very much in the course of being implemented, but the industry has started off on the path to becoming more sustainable, which means students need to apply critical thinking to find solutions to challenges the sector faces.  

“As vessels become cleaner, and the liner transportation industry moves from its current mostly paper-based processes to more digital ways of working, supply chains will benefit in that transport can be responsible for a high percentage of goods’ carbon footprint,” says Goldby. For example, research shows that transport accounted for up to 70 percent of the carbon footprint of some imported products.

So participants on the LL.M. also learn to engage in debate, presenting their thoughts in a cogent and persuasive manner. “They develop the ability to review, analyze and draw upon a wide range of legal materials, including primary sources, contractual provisions, academic commentary, and literature from policymakers,” Goldby says.

They also learn to demonstrate this understanding through legal analysis and argument, in addition to planning and implementing an original research project in the field.  

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