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.
January 14, 2023 in Business Associations, Business School, Compliance, Conferences, Consulting, Contracts, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Law Firms, Law School, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Private Equity, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching, Technology, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, June 10, 2022
Prior to joining academia, I served as a compliance officer for a Fortune 500 company and I continue to consult on compliance matters today. It's an ever changing field, which is why I'm glad so many students take my Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course in the Fall. I tell them that if they do transactional or commercial litigation work, compliance issues will inevitably arise. Here are some examples:
- In M&A deals, someone must look at the target's bribery, money laundering, privacy, employment law, environmental, and other risks
- Companies have to complete several disclosures. How do you navigate the rules that conflict or overlap?
- What do institutional investors really care about? What's material when it relates to ESG issues?
- What training does the board need to ensure that they meet their fiduciary duties?
- How do you deal with cyberattacks and what are the legal and ethical issues related to paying ransomware?
- How do geopolitical factors affect the compliance program?
- Who can be liable for a compliance failure?
- What happens when people cut corners in a supply chain and how can that affect the company's legal risk?
- What does a Biden DOJ/SEC mean compared to the same offices under Trump?
- Who is your client when representing an organization with compliance failures?
- and so much more
I'm thrilled to be closing out the PLI Compliance and Ethics Essentials conference in New York with my co-panelist Ben Gruenstein of Cravath, Swaine, & Moore. It's no fun being the last set of presenters, but we do have the ethics credits, so please join us either in person or online on June 28th. Our areas of focus include:
- Risk assessment, program assessment, and attorney-client privilege
- Ethical obligations for lawyers and compliance officers
- Which compliance program communications can (and should) be privileged?
In addition to discussing the assigned issues, I also plan to arm the compliance officers with more information about the recent trend(?) of Caremark cases getting past the motion to dismiss stage and compliance lessons learned from the Elon Musk/Twitter/Tesla saga.
Here's the description of the conference, but again, even if you're not in compliance, you'll be a better transactional lawyer from learning this area of the law.
Compliance and ethics programs are critically important to the success of any organization. Effective programs allow organizations to identify and mitigate legal risks. With an increasingly tough enforcement environment, and greater demands for transparency and accountability, an effective compliance program is no longer just “nice-to-have.” It’s essential.
Whether you are new to the area or a seasoned compliance professional, PLI’s program will give you the tools you need to improve your organization’s compliance program. We will review the principal elements of compliance programs and discuss best practices and recent developments for each. Our distinguished faculty, drawn from major corporations, academia, law firms and the government, can help you improve your program, increase employee awareness and decrease legal risk. Compliance and Ethics Essentials 2022 is highly interactive and includes case studies, practical tools and real-time benchmarking.
What You Will Learn
- Designing and conducting effective compliance risk assessments that enhance your program
- Structuring your program for appropriate independence and authority
- The evolving role of the board
- ESG and your compliance program
- Using data analytics to improve your program
- Encouraging reporting and investigating allegations of wrongdoing
- Best practices in compliance codes, communications, training and tools
- Ethics for compliance professionals
Who Should Attend
If you are involved in any aspect of corporate compliance and ethics as in-house counsel, a compliance and ethics officer, human resources executive, outside counsel, or risk management consultant, this event should be on your annual calendar.
Special Feature: Special luncheon presentation with guest speaker
If you do come to the conference, I would love to grab a cup of coffee with you, so reach out.
June 10, 2022 in Compliance, Conferences, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Legislation, M&A, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 14, 2020
As an academic and consultant on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, I’ve used a lot of loaded terms -- greenwashing, where companies tout an environmentally friendly record but act otherwise; pinkwashing, where companies commoditize breast cancer awareness or LGBTQ issues; and bluewashing, where companies rally around UN corporate social responsibility initiatives such as the UN Global Compact.
In light of recent events, I’ve added a new term to my arsenal—wokewashing. Wokewashing occurs when a company attempts to show solidarity with certain causes in order to gain public favor. Wokewashing isn’t a new term. It’s been around for years, but it gained more mainstream traction last year when Unilever’s CEO warned that companies were eroding public trust and industry credibility, stating:
Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply… There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.
The Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements have brought wokewashing front and center again. My colleague Stefan Padfield has written about the need for heightened scrutiny of politicized decisions and corporate responses to the BLM movement here, here, and here, and Ann Lipton has added to the discussion here. How does a board decide what to do when faced with pressure from stakeholders? How much is too much and how little is too little?
The students in my summer Regulatory Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course were torn when they acted as board members deciding whether to make a public statement on Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. As fiduciaries of a consumer goods company, the “board members” felt that they had to say “something,” but in the days before class they had seen the explosion of current and former employees exposing companies with strong social justice messaging by pointing to hypocrisy in their treatment of employees and stakeholders. They had witnessed the controversy over changing the name of the Redskins based on pressure from FedEx and other sponsors (and not the Native Americans and others who had asked for the change for years). They had heard about the name change of popular syrup, Aunt Jemima. I intentionally didn’t force my students to draft a statement. They merely had to decide whether to speak at all, and this was difficult when looking at the external realities. Most of the students voted to make some sort of statement even as every day on social media, another “woke” company had to defend itself in the court of public opinion. Others, like Nike, have received praise for taking a strong stand in the face of public pressure long before it was cool and profitable to be “woke.”
Now it’s time for companies to defend themselves in actual court (assuming plaintiffs can get past various procedural hurdles). Notwithstanding Facebook and Oracle’s Delaware forum selection bylaws, the same lawyers who filed the shareholder derivative action against Google after its extraordinary sexual harassment settlement have filed shareholder derivative suits in California against Facebook, Oracle, and Qualcomm. Among other things, these suits generally allege breach of the Caremark duty, false statements in proxy materials purporting to have a commitment to diversity, breach of fiduciary duty relating to a diverse slate of candidates for board positions, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs have labeled these cases civil rights suits, targeting Facebook for allowing hate speech and discriminatory advertising, Qualcomm for underpaying women and minorities by $400 million, and Oracle for having no Black board members or executives. Oracle also faces a separate class action lawsuit based on unequal pay and gender.
Why these companies? According to the complaints, “[i]f Oracle simply disclosed that it does not want any Black individuals on its Board, it would be racist but honest…” and “[a]t Facebook, apparently Zuckerberg wants Blacks to be seen but not heard.” Counsel Bottini explained, “when you actually go back and look at these proxy statements and what they’ve filed with the SEC, they’re actually lying to shareholders.”
I’m not going to discuss the merits of these cases. Instead, for great analysis, please see here written by attorneys at my old law firm Cleary Gottlieb. I’ll do some actual legal analysis during my CLE presentation at the University of Tennessee Transactions conference on October 16th.
Instead, I’m going to make this a little more personal. I’m used to being the only Black person and definitely the only Black woman in the room. It’s happened in school, at work, on academic panels, and in organizations. When I testified before Congress on a provision of Dodd-Frank, a Black Congressman who grilled me mercilessly during my testimony came up to me afterwards to tell me how rare it was to see a Black woman testify about anything, much less corporate issues. He expressed his pride. For these reasons, as a Black woman in the corporate world, I’m conflicted about these lawsuits. Do corporations need to do more? Absolutely. Is litigation the right mechanism? I don’t know.
What will actually change? Whether or not these cases ever get past motions to dismiss, the defendant companies are likely to take some action. They will add the obligatory Black board members and executives. They will donate to various “woke” causes. They will hire diversity consultants. Indeed, many of my colleagues who have done diversity, equity, and inclusion work for years are busier than they have ever been with speaking gigs and training engagements. But what will actually change in the long term for Black employees, consumers, suppliers, and communities?
When a person is hired or appointed as the “token,” especially after a lawsuit, colleagues often believe that the person is under or unqualified. The new hire or appointee starts under a cloud of suspicion and sometimes resentment. Many eventually resign or get pushed out. Ironically, I personally know several diversity officers who have left their positions with prestigious companies because they were hired as window dressing. Although I don’t know Morgan Stanley’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Marilyn Booker, her story is familiar to me, and she has now filed suit against her own company alleging racial bias.
So I’ll keep an eye on what these defendants and other companies do. Actions speak louder than words. I don’t think that shareholder derivative suits are necessarily the answer, but at least they may prompt more companies to have meaningful conversations that go beyond hashtag activism.
August 14, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)