AS ESG issues become increasingly important to law firms and their clients, law firm leaders and corporate GCs need to find ways to upskill their legal teams to better manage this critical strategy
Stakeholders of companies — from investors to employees and customers to governments and local communities — are increasingly demanding companies take meaningful action in areas of environmental, social & governance (ESG) issues, and in particular, in environmental sustainability.
Simply being actively part of the climate and biodiversity transition is no longer a nice-to-have option, it’s fundamental to how companies drive value in the business going forward.
I sat down with Justine Campbell, Group General Counsel and Company Secretary of National Grid, which builds and runs energy grids in the United Kingdom and the United States, to get her insights into why she believes corporate general counsel are crucial in this process. She also discusses the steps she has taken to develop her and her team’s capability in ESG and sustainability, and how her participation in the Leaders Programme run by General Counsel Sustainability Leaders (GCSL) has helped with this.
Benefits of GCs playing a leadership role
General counsels’ support on strategic business issues generates impact and builds resilience as GCs have a great ability to connect the dots across multiple issues in the business. This means the in-house law department is well positioned to positively influence their company’s ESG strategy.
Campbell notes that GCs’ enterprise influence gives them privileged access to very strategic and important issues. This access enables legal teams to make their influence felt because they are “used to and good at translating very complex external requirements into actions that are realistic and can be achieved within the business and then to prioritize the steps required,” Campbell says.
Having this ability also can help bridge the gap between different parts of the business: The stakeholders, who want to build momentum, and those parts of the organization that may be holding back progress. Having the GC be part of the strategy and decision-making process across environmental sustainability and wider ESG topics helps to balance out the process and move the business towards tangible actions.
Developing yourself and your team
Some of the biggest challenges Campbell says she sees for GCs and their teams are getting enough knowledge to be able to identify opportunities and risks around ESG issues so legal teams are in a position to support the relevant stakeholders. This is particularly pressing due to the increasingly complicated regulatory requirements around environmental sustainability.
Indeed, this is where the adoption of a growth mindset by the GC can really assist in acquiring the right mix of knowledge, skills, and abilities to meet the needs of business in support of an enterprise-wide ESG strategy. GCs can use a wide array of external resources — from outside legal advisors to podcasts and internal subject matter experts, such as:
- Audio-based resources — Campbell’s journey started with herself. She explains that she started small by getting herself comfortable in the space through individual learning (often through podcasts) and then encouraged her team to do the same.
- Internal functions with expertise — Campbell stresses the importance of linking with other teams within the business, including Finance, Corporate Affairs, and Strategy, to understand what the business is doing and how it could be affected by ESG issues. “We connected with our Sustainability team and ran a workshop to discuss our positions on responsible business and climate transition plans in order to influence our legal risk management,” she says, adding that her team also uses the expertise of the engineering and risk teams to understand “the reality of how climate adaption, asset maintenance, and their associated risks hit our business.”
- Outside counsel — Campbell asked National Grid’s external legal advisers to come in and talk to core members of the Sustainability, Corporate Affairs, and Legal Teams about obligations, reputational risks, emerging trends, and ways to mitigate risk. In her experience, external advisers are fantastic at providing this type of broad and constructive advice, she notes.
Peer-to-peer learning is a shortcut for upskilling
Campbell explains that learning from peers through GCSL’s Leaders Programme has been invaluable for her in providing support and helping her develop her and her team’s environmental sustainability knowledge. “There aren’t clear cut answers on how to tackle sustainability issues, especially given the rapid rate of development,” Campbell says. “Having conversations with my Leaders Programme peer group was really helpful. It made me realize I am not the only one facing this challenge, and it’s given me an opportunity to learn from others and to share my learnings in a safe space.”
By sharing her situation with peers Campbell says she has accelerated her learning. She mentions a time when she recognized a need for upskilling around marketing materials and attendant greenwashing risks. This need was discussed with her peers in the Programme, and she learned that they’d already done training on this key topic. By utilizing their material, Campbell says she was able to provide the training much faster than she could have done internally.
The role of the GC has also expanded greatly over the years. From Campbell’s experience, the more you do, the more work comes at you — juggling multiple demands is a key skill all GCs must manage, she adds.
By taking small but consistent steps in developing her and her team’s capabilities in ESG and sustainability and by linking in with internal and external stakeholders and peers, Campbell notes she is providing vital support in her company’s ESG and sustainability transition.
“GCs have the ability to do it,” Campbell says. “We just need to own it and get in there: Be part of the solution.”