Lawyers are rethinking their roles to address wider business, political and social questions, prompting law schools to overhaul curricula to deal with complex social challenges and responsibilities.
Over the past two decades, business leaders have increasingly turned to their attorneys for strategic as well as legal advice. A key turning point was the 2008 financial crisis, when lawyers acquired new status as business partners to help organizations deal with existential threats.
The Covid-19 pandemic is another inflection point for lawyers, who are expending their roles to help build companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) agendas. They are not merely advisors, but are becoming catalysts for the changes they want to see, both in-house and in top law firms.
“Our graduates are being asked to be multifaceted in their practice and knowledge,” says Rosa Celorio, Associate Dean and Professorial Lecturer for International and Comparative Legal Studies at George Washington University Law School (GW Law School) in Washington, DC.
This means not only showing aptitude and command of specific areas of the law, but also applying this expertise to advance important causes in areas such as human rights, racial equality, the eradication of discrimination, and advancing social justice.
This was an important reason why GW Law created a new LL.M. concentration on International Human Rights, and a Concentration on International Arbitration, Mediation and Other Forms of Dispute Resolution.
Celorio says many issues facing lawyers today are related to sustainable development and the safeguard of a healthy environment. “Every day, lawyers become more invested in these issues, and are increasingly called to help in the finding of solutions and legal strategies to address these problems,” she says.
Judith Bueno de Mesquita, lecturer in international human rights law at University of Essex’s School of Law in the UK, agrees that demand for such content from LL.M. students is increasing “There is a lot more interest in questions of the environment including climate change,” she says.
“There is a greater interest these days in social movements and grassroots activism as well. There is also a greater interest in questions of global economic inequalities, likely as a result of higher profile academic research and campaigning by NGOs.”
Challenging the status quo
Alongside the climate and Covid crises, is the rise of stakeholder capitalism, with companies’ extending their focus beyond shareholders and being challenged in the courts of law and public opinion over failings. This means the skills, training and long-term thinking of lawyers is having to change.
GW Law’s International and Comparative Law program, for example, offers solid training on international legal theory and doctrine, but also creates opportunities for students to put their knowledge to practical use in addressing many social issues.
“Law schools have an important role in imparting knowledge in specific areas of the law and creating opportunities for practical exposure and externships,” Celorio says. “However, their role is even more important in conveying specific values to students to guide their practice.”
Jayan Nayar, Associate Professor at Warwick Law School in the UK, teaches LL.M. students about how colonial and imperial pasts, and their continuities, have defined the content and structure of the contemporary global order.
“Our offering is concerned with understanding how law operates in the real world, and to examine strategies of resistance and creative engagement towards social justice,” he says. “Increasingly, it is noticeable that there is ever greater pressure for law schools to be serving the profession.”
He says lawyers have always addressed business and political questions — but not always for the good. “As for social justice, my guess is that regardless of actual substantive understanding and commitment, there is a ‘bandwagon’ effect that cannot be disregarded,” says Nayar. “In any case, no lawyer will explicitly state that they work against social justice.”
Many want meaningful, post-LL.M. careers
More than ever, top law school graduates are seeking careers that are meaningful. However, Nayar says much of the work lawyers do still serves corporate interests and “greenwashes” the social issues. “To take on vested interests for justice — there is not much of a market for such legal practice,” he adds. “The career opportunities for lawyers that serve capital are obviously much more available.”
Celorio, at GW Law, has a different take. Previously, she worked for more than a decade as Senior Attorney for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, one of the main organs of the regional human rights protection system for the Americas, where she held several leadership positions.
“There are a wide range of opportunities for law school graduates to tackle many social issues in practice, in particular in the area of international law,” she says.
LL.M. graduates can work in international organizations such as the United Nations, the OAS, and the World Bank; in nonprofit institutions and foundations; in the federal US government and think tanks; in law firms and their pro bono programs; and in corporations and their corporate social responsibility initiatives.
In addition, alumni might find academic careers within law schools to further the sustainability research agenda.