At the second in our series of AuDela VRTs designed to accelerate creative thinking around how legal services can rebuild differently in the post Covid world, we looked beyond the window dressing to consider the impact of ESG in the GC world. We wanted to understand to what extent GCs need to shift the needle and how that manifests.
Jerome Losson, Partner at international investment firm BC Partners, kicked things off with an introduction about the importance of ESG in the investment world: “Talk is cheap. We all know that things need to get done. So, figure out the actions you can take and take them. And then talk about it.” This quote also neatly encapsulates the mood amongst the GCs attending: there was no mistaking their clarion call for change. For them, ESG is very real and has gone way beyond window dressing.
“As a company, we are increasingly being asked about our DEI commitments, both internally within our organization and externally within the communities we serve with our products and services. We still have more work to do but we are working very hard to make progress. I therefore have very little sympathy with those law firms who are behind the curve and concentrate their efforts on justifying the status quo.” Rachel Jacobs, GC, Springer Nature.
“ESG is ‘for real’ for us. It's not window dressing. It's a lot of work. And it changes the way we select the business partnerships that we get into.” (Jerome) For those of you who don’t feel the heat emanating from that sentence, we could pepper you with many similar ones uttered in the course of our session.
The message was clear: expect to be nailed for ESG evidence (fully backed up by meaningful data) at your next panel review. Understanding that is one thing but the bad news according to Rachel is that there is no quick fix: “To be able to drive change you've really got to start right from the top. Your intention and ambition needs to be reflected in your mission, vision and culture and then incorporated in your strategy and progress measured via KPIs. To effect change, both behavioural and practical changes need be put in place - you can't make the change just from a tick box exercise.”
So, if you haven’t yet or are only just waking up to the importance of the ESG agenda, you’ve got a serious challenge on your hands. We heard a couple of toe-curling stories relating to RFP ‘fog’ masquerading as credible data and without wishing to depress our law firms, there’s more bad news: attempts to ‘fake it till you make it’ won’t wash. “The rhetoric, the advertising puff and some of the ‘masking’ waffle to circumvent law firms having to give unacceptable answers to our direct questions leaves us with…” I don’t need to finish the sentence uttered in the session for you to get the gist. It’s time to act.
ESG is undoubtedly a large beast which requires strategic level input, support and positioning. It is also a long-term commitment. However, trying to eat the elephant in one go can feel daunting and slow but there was helpful advice for this too: “It is critical to focus on those areas where you think you can move fastest internally and with impact, and then follow through.” (Jerome). Or, of course, you could simply set up an inspirational charity like Andrew Garard, Group General Counsel & Director of Corporate Affairs, Meggitt PLC and make it sustainable: “Today we have taken on one of the first graduates from the scheme that my charity set up. I’m particularly delighted that he’s one of the first people to pass through our social mobility work experience.”
The good news is that ESG is “an enormous commercial opportunity for law firms.” (Rachel). And, according to Andrew “there are lots of willing participants”. Andrew made the upbeat analogy ‘build it and they will come’ from Kevin Costner’s film ‘Field of Dreams’. It looks like time has come to stop dreaming and make it real.
Jerome gave a clear message: “Everyone on this call has a degree of responsibility which is significant: lots of people look up to you, and look to you, for direction or for stimulation – so just do it, would be my parting thought.”
His words were acted upon in a wonderfully spontaneous decision by all GCs at the session to set up a working party led by our own ESG Head Jane Pittaway, to collaborate on best practice in RFP drafting and evaluation in the ESG space particularly on the environment.
To facilitate that work and ripple it out further, we’ve established a LinkedIn members group - ‘The ESG Lab for GCs’ - for candid conversations and a nested series of drafting initiatives to encourage and support GCs to move forward on their ESG agenda in collaboration with others facing the same challenges. The name of the game will be practical steps and forward momentum focused on iterative and incremental progress.
If you are a GC and wish to participate, please follow this link or message Jane direct:
If you’re part of the executive team at a law firm and driving this change or leading this conversation and would like to have a chat please get in touch.
In next week’s follow up piece we’ll also be sharing insights from Shanika Amarakesara, Chief Impact Officer, British Business Bank, Lucy Beaumont, GC UK & Ireland, Unilever and Kenny Robertson, Head of Legal, Outsourcing Technology & IP, RBS.