Heriot Brown

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a rise in General Counsel and their teams incorporating the ESG strategy into the legal one and can be a great opportunity to enhance the knowledge, abilities and exposure of the in-house legal team.    

With the in-house career often fighting against fairly flat structures, the diversity of ESG matters can offer a scope for everyone to own one or more issues and offer a development opportunity that can be inspiring to the team dynamic. There’s also a very logical fit between legal and ESG with the rise of regulation in this space. 

Our latest Lessons I Learned in Law roundtable gathered 12 in-house counsel to discuss expanding their legal careers with ESG. Andy Sunderland kindly co-moderated the discussion, sharing some of the lessons he’s learned during his sabbatical as Director of Group ESG Strategy from Chief Counsel, Corporate at Curry’s. 

After doing his CoSec exams, Andy remembered that he quite liked studying and was on the hunt for another course that would be interesting and relevant to his role. A Masters seemed a bit too intellectual, an MBA seemed expensive and long and that’s when he came across an 8 week course run by the Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Learning. 

This peaked his interest – “I know in my personal life I need to fly less, recycle more and so on but I was struggling to translate this into a business context.” So the course was great, covering a range of areas from the problem, regulation, finance, product development, marketing – a great way to get a flavour for all the ways ESG touches a business.  

Funnily enough two of the attendees also just finished the course and were in the same cohort. Another on the call recently completed a similar course at Oxford and a fourth completed the CFA certificate in ESG investing (see useful links at the end) 

Andy left the course motivated to do something and was then trying to think of ways that he could incorporate what he learned into his role. Coincidentally around the same time the Director of People, Comms and Sustainability was looking for ways to bolster the team, helping with navigating senior stakeholder buy in and the increased focus on companies to report on ESG in their annual reports via TCFD. 

Andy’s first piece of advice is “to get stakeholders focussed, motivated, involved, help them to understand the issues and then get them to commit”  

Not an easy task but one that many in-house lawyers will have experience battling from their careers as lawyers so it makes a lot of sense to the group why Andy has been able to build on the relationships he made as a lawyer to pivoting them towards the ESG strategy too. 

One attendee says it’s “the first role that I’ve had where I’m working much more with the senior leadership and executive teams” and “It’s great from a career perspective because it puts you really at the heart of things” 

Andy adds that his sabbatical has given him not just the opportunity to grow his relationships with senior management but also given him exposure to a much wider stakeholders within the business – relationships he can take back with him into the legal department. 

But it’s not always plain sailing and when adding to your role you need to decipher ways to balance your old responsibilities with the new. It’s “basically taken over my entire day and everything else is just really squeezed around the edges to try and fit it in” says one attendee which is echoed by another adding “part of the challenge is that I’m still doing the day job”. 

Another attendee shares that “at the beginning, it took over 70% of my time, which was a lot so I’m grateful that I have a good legal team to rely on”. He took a slightly different route which offers another top tip for the group on where and how to start your journey. “We looked at becoming a B Corp because it gave us a framework that we could follow.” He adds that even if you don’t go for the accreditation that you can still download their framework and use it as a guide (link at the end) 

Andy’s second piece of advice is “if you want to continue in sustainability in the context of a business, then you really need to understand the business context and the challenges that your business faces” 

This resonates completely with the in-house legal career too, with most readers having also discussed the role of GC being more than a lawyer, but also a strategic business partner. Whilst many achieve this goal, others struggle with getting the buy in. So could the widely unstructured and difficult to navigate ESG landscape be that perfect opportunity for an in-house lawyer to showcase their business partner skills? Could it be the perfect way to get into the room? 

It seems that although the half of attendees who are currently heavily involved in their ESG strategy would all agree that it’s offered significant career development opportunities, there does seem to be a need for businesses to counteract their lawyers taking the ESG strategy on with additional resources in the legal team. If you’d like to speak about how to have this conversation, please reach out for advice! 

As Andy’s sabbatical draws to an end, he’s asked the million dollar question, “would you prefer to stay in the ESG role rather than go back to legal?” I’m afraid you needed to be there on the day to hear the answer 

Useful links mentioned by attendees:  

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