Carla Lewis, senior associate in arbitration, economic sanctions and public international law at Clifford Chance, reveals how the growing awareness of environment, social and governance principles (ESG) is changing her work as a disputes lawyer
“Clients have a growing awareness of climate change on both a human and business level,” says Carla Lewis, senior associate at Clifford Chance. “Everyone appreciates that not doing anything affects the sustainability of businesses in the long run.”
The rise of environmental, social and governance principles (ESG) has provided new opportunities and challenges for lawyers. As the litigation associate lead of Clifford Chance’s climate change risk team, Lewis tells Legal Cheek that her work includes both contentious work on ongoing disputes and advisory work related to ESG. A lot of this work also involves ESG risk management for clients, who include a mix of banks and corporates.
“Clients increasingly want risk management advice when they are introducing net zero policies, for example,” she says. Lewis tells us, “Climate-related risk management work is not simply limited to big carbon majors. Banks and financial institutions are also increasingly aware of ESG concerns when deciding where and how to invest their money.”
Broadening types of claims
ESG is becoming a broad area of practice. According to Lewis, climate change disputes are no longer as simplistic as ‘I pollute therefore I am at risk’. There are a growing number of greenwashing claims as well. “With the rise in ESG, corporates are looking to advertise themselves as green companies. This could potentially involve claims if proven untrue.”
“You can’t simply shut down a power plant, for example, without considering the impact this might have on communities. The shift to a green economy is quite nuanced.”
In future, ESG risk management lawyers are likely to find themselves busy with increasingly interesting and nuanced categories of such claims. Lewis gives an example: “We have recently also heard of a case where a company went against a competitor, claiming that greenwashing had given the defendant a competitive advantage.”
Lewis says there are a number of ways in which environmental issues can permeate business. For example, private equity is another sector where clients are becoming more conscious of their environmental impact. “Investment funds are caring about whether their portfolios are green, and not just because that is where their investors want them to be investing,” says Lewis. As with greenwashing, a lot of this involves ESG-related risk management too.
“Lawyers of today often need to understand the science behind things, which will help them appreciate the risks their clients are facing. Understanding and applying know-how in new contexts would be a vital skill in the coming years.”
Lewis is keen to flag that clients understand there is an intersectionality within the three prongs of ESG itself. This means companies are thinking, for example, about the social and community implications of their environmental actions. “There has recently been a massive focus on ensuring a just transition,” she says. “You can’t simply shut down a power plant, for example, without considering the impact this might have on communities. The shift to a green economy is quite nuanced.”
The contentious side of ESG can be challenging, partly because law-making is not moving as quickly as some stakeholders would like. “Quite often, activism is moving faster than the laws,” says Lewis. “People are therefore bringing cases under existing laws but in new contexts.” This means lawyers need to be at the top of their game. “Lawyers of today often need to understand the science behind things, which will help them appreciate the risks their clients are facing. Understanding and applying know-how in new contexts would be a vital skill in the coming years.”
Pro bono & international
Being an ESG lawyer can often present exciting pro bono opportunities as well. Lewis talks to us about her work on Clifford Chance’s largest ever pro bono project for the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, which involved conducting a survey on the recognition of the right to a healthy environment in the domestic laws of all 193 UN Member States.
Being the lead associate on the project meant she had overall responsibility for managing the project – allocating jurisdictions to her colleagues, reviewing research, overseeing and managing associates and feeding back any lessons learned. The project speaks to the truly international nature of working at a big city firm, Lewis says. “It involved 27 of our offices globally and we together reached out to more than 100 local law firms, all of whom contributed their time and expertise on a pro bono basis. It was an organisational beast and involved very interesting substantive research.”
Adding to this, she explains that liaising with so many local counsels internationally gave her some valuable perspective. “We were working with lawyers in countries such as Afghanistan and Libya, for example, who had to contend with access to local libraries being restricted. The team from the Bahamas survived hurricane Irma”. Lewis tells us that learning stories of the challenges other lawyers face around the world simply to do their work “readjusts one’s sense of reality”.
Having previously worked and studied across a number of countries, including Singapore and Dubai, she is quite excited when asked about the importance of travel to a legal career. “Working in different countries challenges groupthink and makes you realise that there are various ways of doing things. This is immensely helpful in refining one’s analytical skills and problem solving.” Joining in from Italy, from where she has been working virtually for more than a month, thanks to Clifford Chance’s remote work policy, she tells us, “working within other jurisdictions puts things in perspective, whilst also helping to build some amazing networks which can help you throughout your career”.
Advice on CC training contracts
Ahead of Clifford Chance training contract applications, Lewis advises students to be open-minded about their careers. “Don’t go into your training contract with a preconceived notion of where you’d like to qualify. The training contract is a brilliant opportunity to understand which area excites you the most.”
Carla Lewis will be speaking at ‘ESG explored: Inside the deals — with Clifford Chance’, a hybrid student event taking place this Wednesday (7 September). You can still apply to attend the virtual stream of the event, which is free, now.
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