04 October

The changing role of the General Counsel to support sustainability

There must be an intrinsic motivation to demonstrate how the legal function contributes on the ESG journey above and beyond just providing advice.


In the previous blog of our series, we heard from Yannick and Adrian of impactvise about the importance of law firms stepping into the limelight and taking a stand on broader societal issues.


Part IV switches the limelight from law firms towards the General Counsel of corporations. Having spent most of his career as the General Counsel for Zurich Insurance, Yannick will provide some insight into how the GC role has evolved and the new expectations from today's GC in driving sustainability within their organisations.



You can look at sustainability from different angels including governance, prosperity, people, planet - all aspects that are essential for a General Counsel. Taking a position on these ESG topics also comes with having to take responsibility.


There must be an intrinsic motivation to demonstrate how the legal function contributes on the ESG journey above and beyond just providing advice.


I personally came to the point where you have to make choices and you have to be transparent.


But ESG also presents new opportunities, for example, in how you select law firms: what kind of law firms you use, how you engage with them, what are the questions you ask them. As a client, you can impose expectations, and companies are in the position to expect certain sustainable behaviours from law firms. But you have to be clear what you ask and hold law firms accountable.



Do you see general counsels have more accountability or more power to be able to take that stand and position? And what would be your advice in terms of helping general counsels to actually see it that way?



It depends in what jurisdiction you operate, the culture of the company, but also what your personality is. One approach is the standard role to provide advice. The evolution I see now of the profession is that this standard role will no longer cut it.


And one of the mantras I had, and continue to be absolutely convinced of, is that you have to shape or you get shaped.


ESG is a huge opportunity for general counsels as they are in almost all critical positions and conversations of the organisation. And if you move from the back seat and are willing to also express views, you can say, ‘Look, this is my technical legal advice on the topic. However, I as an individual and a corporate C suite member, my view is the following’.


If you make a clear distinction between the role you represent and the advice you provide there and your personal, professional views, it can be very rewarding.


And it’s an approach which is absolutely expected of proactive and forward looking innovative companies.



I would echo this and I think also the members of the legal department are expecting that the General Counsel takes certain positions. If you just take diversity, for example, as General Counsel you can certainly look into your own department and drive change there. But you are also expected to do this externally when you pick and work with law firms. Of course, ESG is much broader and will go much faster, and it will continue to go much faster than in the last five to 10 years.


But there is huge opportunity here for law firms. ESG plays to the strength of a lawyer- we understand governance like no other. But we need to move beyond just pro bono work and working in silo to now make wider impact.


Stay tuned: In our fifth blog, we will look into how law firms can support General Counsels on the sustainability agenda while balancing commercial realities.


In case you missed it, read part 1, 2 and 3 here.



About us:

impactvise enables lawyers to act and advise for positive impact by providing industry-leading ESG data analytics, sustainability-oriented consulting, and educational training for the legal services sector.

Ampersand Partners is a management consultancy bringing strategic clarity and execution momentum to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, regenerative economy. The Energy Transition and Sustainability practice helps energy companies navigate the energy transition and non-energy clients deliver their net zero ambitions.