Saturday, January 14, 2023
An ambitious question, yes, but it was the title of the presentation I gave at the Society for Socio-Economists Annual Meeting, which closed yesterday. Thanks to Stefan Padfield for inviting me.
In addition to teaching Business Associations to 1Ls this semester and running our Transactional Skills program, I'm also teaching Business and Human Rights. I had originally planned the class for 25 students, but now have 60 students enrolled, which is a testament to the interest in the topic. My pre-course surveys show that the students fall into two distinct camps. Most are interested in corporate law but didn't know even know there was a connection to human rights. The minority are human rights die hards who haven't even taken business associations (and may only learn about it for bar prep), but are curious about the combination of the two topics. I fell in love with this relatively new legal field twelve years ago and it's my mission to ensure that future transactional lawyers have some exposure to it.
It's not just a feel-good way of looking at the world. Whether you love or hate ESG, business and human rights shows up in every factor and many firms have built practice areas around it. Just last week, the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive came into force. Like it or not, business lawyers must know something about human rights if they deal with any company that has or is part of a supply or value chain or has disclosure requirements.
At the beginning of the semester, we discuss the role of the corporation in society. In many classes, we conduct simulations where students serve as board members, government officials, institutional investors, NGO leaders, consumers, and others who may or may not believe that the role of business is business. Every year, I also require the class to examine the top 10 business and human rights topics as determined by the Institute of Human Rights and Business (IHRB). In 2022, the top issues focused on climate change:
- State Leadership-Placing people at the center of government strategies in confronting the climate crisis
- Accountable Finance- Scaling up efforts to hold financial actors to their human rights and environmental responsibilities
- Dissenting Voices- Ensuring developmental and environmental priorities do not silence land rights defenders and other critical voices
- Critical Commodities- Addressing human rights risks in mining to meet clean energy needs
- Purchasing Power- Using the leverage of renewable energy buyers to accelerate a just transition
- Responsible Exits- Constructing rights-based approaches to buildings and infrastructure mitigation and resilience
- Green Building- Building and construction industries must mitigate impacts while avoiding corruption, reducing inequality, preventing harm to communities, and providing economic opportunities
- Agricultural Transitions- Decarbonising the agriculture sector is critical to maintaining a path toward limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees
- Transforming Transport- The transport sector, including passenger and freight activity, remains largely carbon-based and currently accounts for approximately 23% total energy-related CO2 global greenhouse gas emissions
- Circular Economy- Ensure “green economy” is creating sustainable jobs and protecting workers
The 2023 list departs from the traditional type of list and looks at the people who influence the decisionmakers in business. That's the basis of the title of this post and yesterday's presentation. The 2023 Top Ten are:
- Strategic Enablers- Scrutinizing the role of management consultants in business decisions that harm communities and wider society. Many of our students work outside of the law as consultants or will work alongside consultants. With economic headwinds and recessionary fears dominating the headlines, companies and law firms are in full layoff season. What factors should advisors consider beyond financial ones, especially if the work force consists of primarily lower-paid, low-skilled labor, who may not be able to find new employment quickly? Or should financial considerations prevail?
- Capital Providers- Holding investors to account for adverse impacts on people- More than 220 investors collectively representing US$30 trillion in assets under management have signed a public statement acknowledging the importance of human rights impacts in investment and global prosperity. Many financial firms also abide by the Equator Principles, a benchmark that helps those involved in project finance to determine environmental and social impacts from financing. Our students will serve as counsel to banks, financial firms, private equity, and venture capitalists. Many financial institutions traditionally focus on shareholder maximization but this could be an important step in changing that narrative.
- Legal Advisors- Establishing norms and responsible performance standards for lawyers and others who advise companies. ABA Model Rule 2.1 guides lawyers to have candid conversations that "may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client's situation." Business and human rights falls squarely in that category. Additionally, the ABA endorsed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights ten years ago and released model supply chain contractual clauses related to human rights in 2021. Last Fall, the International Bar Association's Annual Meeting had a whole track directed to business and human rights issues. Our students advise on sanctions, bribery, money laundering, labor relations, and a host of other issues that directly impact human rights. I'm glad to see this item on the Top 10 list.
- Risk Evaluators- Reforming the role of credit rating agencies and those who determine investment worthiness of states and companies. Our students may have heard of S&P, Moody's, & Fitch but may not know of the role those entities played in the 2008 financial crisis and the role they play now when looking at sovereign debt. If the analysis from those entities are flawed or laden with conflicts of interest or lack of accountability, those ratings can indirectly impact the government's ability to provide goods and services for the most vulnerable citizens.
- Systems Builders- Embedding human rights considerations in all stages of computer technology. If our students work in house or for governments, how can they advise tech companies working with AI, surveillance, social media, search engines and the spread of (mis)nformation? What ethical responsibilities do tech companies have and how can lawyers help them wrestle with these difficult issues?
- City Shapers- Strengthening accountability and transformation in real estate finance and construction. Real estate constitutes 60% of global assets. Our students need to learn about green finance, infrastructure spending, and affordable housing and to speak up when there could be human rights impacts in the projects they are advising on.
- Public Persuaders- Upholding standards so that advertising and PR companies do not undermine human rights. There are several legal issues related to advertising and marketing. Our students can also play a role in advising companies, in accordance with ethical rule 2.1, about persuaders presenting human rights issues and portraying controversial topics related to gender, race, indigenous peoples, climate change in a respectful and honest manner.
- Corporate Givers- Aligning philanthropic priorities with international standards and the realities of the most vulnerable. Many large philanthropists look at charitable giving as investments (which they are) and as a way to tackle intractable social problems. Our students can add a human rights perspective as advisors, counsel, and board members to ensure that organizations give to lesser known organizations that help some of the forgotten members of society. Additionally, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer note that a shared-value approach, "generat[es] economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges. A shared value approach reconnects company success with social progress. Firms can do this in three distinct ways: by reconceiving products and markets, redefining productivity in the value chain, and building supportive industry clusters at the company's locations." Lawyers can and should play a role in this.
- Business Educators- Mainstreaming human rights due diligence into management, legal, and other areas of academic training. Our readers teaching in business and law schools and focusing on ESG can discuss business and human rights under any of the ESG factors. If you don't know where to start, the ILO has begun signing MOUs with business schools around the world to increase the inclusion of labor rights in business school curricula. If you're worried that it's too touchy feely to discuss or that these topics put you in the middle of the ESG/anti-woke debate, remember that many of these issues relate directly to enterprise risk management- a more palatable topic for most business and legal leaders.
- Information Disseminators- Ensuring that journalists, media, and social media uphold truth and public interest. A couple of years ago, "fake news" was on the Top 10 and with all that's going on in the world with lack of trust in the media and political institutions, lawyers can play a role in representing reporters and media outlets. Similarly, lawyers can explain the news objectively and help serve as fact checkers when appearing in news outlets.
If you've made it to the end of this post, you're either nodding in agreement or shaking your head violently in disagreement. I expect many of my students will feel the same, and I encourage that disagreement. But it's my job to expose students to these issues. As they learn about ESG from me and the press, it's critical that they disagree armed with information from all sides.
So can the next generation of lawyers save the world? Absolutely yes, if they choose to.