Thursday, July 10, 2014

What can lawyers, professors and students learn from a corporate idealist?

In last week’s post about the business of the World Cup, I indicated that I would review Christine Bader’s book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. I have changed my mind, largely because I don’t have much to add to the great reviews the book has already received. Instead I would like to talk about how lawyers, professors and students can use the advice, even if they have no desire to do corporate social responsibility work as Bader did, or worse, they think CSR and signing on to voluntary UN initiatives is really a form of "bluewashing."

Bader earned an MBA and worked around the world on BP’s behalf on human rights initiatives. This role required her to work with indigenous peoples, government officials and her peers within BP convincing them of the merits of considering the human rights, social, and environmental impacts. She then worked with the UN and John Ruggie helping to develop the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of guidelines which outline the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate duty to respect human rights, and both the state and corporations' duty to provide judicial and non-judicial remedies to aggrieved parties. She now works as a lecturer at Columbia University, where she teaches human rights and business and she also advises BSR, which focuses on making businesses more sustainable. Her book tells her story but also quotes a number of other CSR professionals and how they have navigated through some of the world’s largest multinationals.

 Bader’s book has some important takeaways for all of us.

1)   In order to have influence, we have to learn to speak the language that our audience understands and appreciates- I tell my students that when they write exams for me, it’s all about me. Other professors want their exams written with certain catchphrases using the IRAC method, and I may want something different. One size does not fit all. Attorneys learn (or get replaced) that some clients want long memos, others want executive summaries and bullet points and all want plain English. Talking to a venture capitalist is different than talking to a circuit court judge. Similarly, many law professors are behind the curve. If we only talk to each other in the jargon of the academy and insulate ourselves, the rest of the world won’t have the benefit of our research because they won’t understand or want to read it. Academics have a lot to contribute, but we need to adapt to our audience whether it’s policymakers, judges, our peers or law students.

 2)   Sometimes we have to be less passionate in making our arguments and appeal to what’s important to our audience- This point relates to Point 1. Bader regularly met with a number of constituencies and was understandably zealous in trying to convince others, internally and externally, about her positions. She and other “corporate idealists” from other firms often learned the importance of language- making a business case to certain internal stakeholders meant talking in terms of the bottom line rather than using the maxim “it’s the right thing to do” or “doing well by doing good.” Good attorneys know how to represent their clients without taking things personally because sometimes the passion can actually dilute effectiveness. As law professors, we need to teach our students to be more effective so that they know how and when to modulate their tone, and how to pivot and change the way they frame their arguments when they can’t convince the recipient of their message.

3)   Almost everything comes down to risk management- Bader often had to focus on risk management and mitigation when her moral arguments fell on deaf ears. Those who teach business should make sure that students have a basic understanding of the pressure points that business people face. For some it may be tax liability. For others it may be the appropriate exit strategy. In essence, it all comes down to understanding the client’s risk profile and being able to advise accordingly. Litigators should also understand risk profiles so that they can develop an appropriate settlement strategy and help their client’s work their way through some of the unexpected pitfalls that may arise over the course of the case.

4)   Building relationships is a critical skill- Bader learned that social interactions with her peers at BP and the external stakeholders after hours greatly increased her effectiveness in dealing with thorny issues that arose during business hours. Lawyers often believe that if they have the substantive knowledge, they are the smartest people in the room. Law firms don’t teach young associates about the importance of emotional intelligence and building relationships with peers, opposing counsel, and clients. In fact, many law students and lawyers believe that having the reputation as a “shark” is the best way to represent clients. We need to teach our students that it’s better to be respected than feared or hated, and that they can disagree without being disagreeable. Those of us in the academy should model that behavior more often.

5) We must learn to compromise and recognize that incremental changes are important too- Bader and other corporate idealists often want to change the world but quickly learn that internal and external stakeholders aren’t ready to move that fast. She discussed “nudging” her client toward the right direction. Law school and law-related television shows lead students to believe that the end game is to win and to win big. In the business world, sometimes there are no big wins. Lawyers and business advisors often take two steps forward and one step back, and that’s ok. Students and attorneys who take classes in alternative dispute resolution learn this valuable skill. Bader and other corporate idealists also realized that you have to work with people on the opposite side who feel just as strongly that their position is on the side of the angels. Lawyers who know how to build relationships and refocus their messaging can influence those on the other side if they are willing to listen, and when necessary compromise and accept small victories.

6)   We can compromise but shouldn’t compromise our values- When Bader felt that her work was no longer fulfilling, she looked for other positions that aligned with her world view. With rising student debt and many lawyers living beyond their means, it’s difficult for lawyers to walk away from a job or client that they don’t like. That’s understandable. It’s more problematic to stay in a situation where there is criminal or ethical misconduct without speaking up or leaving because of the financial handcuffs.  It’s also unacceptable to remain in a culture that stifles a lawyer’s ability to raise issues. In some cases, as alleged with some of the GM lawyers, failure to speak up could literally be a matter of life and death.

I enjoyed this quick read because it reminded me so much of my years in corporate life. Bader’s story can teach all of us, even the non corporate-idealists, valuable lessons about coping and thriving in the business world.

 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2014/07/what-can-lawyers-professors-and-students-learn-from-a-corporate-idealist.html

Business Associations, Books, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia Narine, Negotiation, Teaching | Permalink

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