Law firms take note

 “It’s more than whether you are you making the right noises. It’s about exactly what are you doing, what's your plan, is it measurable and when will you deliver it.”(Rachel). As GCs are being asked for proof, so is this now percolating through to their law firms: “Now all of our suppliers are being rolled into our responsible sourcing policy process which is a deep dive due diligence exerciseLucy explained.  Oh, and law firms, listen up as “from this year, that includes law firms too”. 

Panel reviews are subject to an ESG wash too. "We've recently reset our panel and our RFP criteria extends well beyond pricing to include 4 other criteria: climate, D&I, culture, learning and thought leadership".(Kenny). The same thing is going on at Unilever: “When we do panel reviews, we are doing a lot more deep diving now into the ED&I criteria for law firms that we work withLucy explained.

Shanika was also demanding more from her law firms: "Last year during all the crisis work, we asked all lawyers on each matter to update the ESG due diligence questionnaire I had designed not just at the start of the panel but on every matter on a team by team basis: to ask the diversity question, to ask the climate impact question, to ask the priorities question.”

How can GCs help law firms improve their ESG credentials

It is a sign of true leadership to feel responsible for others’ failings. This was the GC stance – well, ok, not all of them, some were rather less forgiving – when confronted, “in many instances, by the rhetoric, the advertising puff and some of the ‘masking’ waffle to circumvent law firms having to give unacceptable/’bad’ answers to our direct questions.” 

Kenny, for one, took it as a sign that GCs needed to be asking better questions of themselves and of their law firms: “How are we holding law firms’ feet to the fire? Are we asking the right questions to law firms? Is it a data play or are we getting initiatives out there that we are sharing? Are we pushing collaborating with law firms or, even better, seeing law firms collaborate with each other? How are we influencing firms to make what we would see as progress on hiring decisions and resourcing decisions? 

How are we (as heavy users of legal services) supporting diverse lawyers coming through? The argument ‘you’re not going to get fired for hiring IBM’ – does this mean we will always be working with the same people who are inevitably from a certain class or a certain gender, a certain background, or are we trying to be more interventionist and start driving some behaviours?"

Frankly, we could spend a happy week debating any number of the questions Kenny raises, the main point being that this is indicative of GCs being prepared to become outright agents of change, committed to try and influence their suppliers as well as their stakeholders.

Beyond the questions 

It’s not enough to ask questions – even the right ones. There has to be follow through to get the desired outcomes: “we've got to keep not just asking the questions, we've got to act based on the outcome and recognise it's going to feel uncomfortable to start with, but we will get there” (Shanika).  Kenny agreed: “What comes next to reinforce all of this, is why it is so very important to ensure follow through”. 

Law firms will get there – with the help of a shepherd

We conclude with one of Andrew’s upbeat and characteristically memorable observations which needs no further qualification: “law firms are a bit like sheep: not only do they flock to the nearest chargeable matter and inundate it with their masses but, much as they would like to claim to be innovators, they need a shepherd.  If we show them the way and our expectations, quite a few of them will come along the journey.”  

We really hope that is the case. 

In the meantime the participant GCs are cracking on and contributing to our  ‘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 too, 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.

With many thanks to all our virtual roundtable participants:

  • Shanika Amarakesara, Chief Impact Officer, British Business Bank
  • Lucy Beaumont, GC UK & Ireland, Unilever
  • Andrew Garard, Group General Counsel & Director of Corporate Affairs, Meggitt PLC
  • Rachel Jacobs, GC, Springer Nature
  • Jerome Losson, Partner, BC Partners
  • Kenny Robertson, Head of Legal, Outsourcing Technology & IP, RBS