What is ESG Anyway and Why Lawyers Should Care

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors have become increasingly important in the business world, affecting corporate decision-making and risk management. 

As a lawyer, understanding Environmental, Social, and Governance is crucial, as clients will increasingly seek advice on navigating the complex regulatory landscape, managing potential liabilities, and addressing the reputational risks associated with it. 

In this post, we’ll define Environmental, Social, and Governance, discuss its importance for lawyers, provide examples of ESG gone wrong, and share tips for effective integration in legal practice.

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What is ESG?

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) meaning is an important concept that companies consider when making decisions. It encompasses a broad range of factors that stakeholders use to assess a corporation’s standards, evaluate future financial performance, and manage risk. ESG is used to assess corporate behaviour and ethical values, which can include factors such as climate change, labor practices, diversity and inclusion, and community engagement. 

In addition to ESG, terms like corporate responsibility (CR), corporate social responsibility (CSR), and sustainability are also used interchangeably and refer to a range of environmental and social responsibility behaviours demonstrated by businesses. Understanding ESG meaning and its significance is crucial for companies and investors alike.

Why is ESG Crucial for Lawyers?


Uninformed lawyers risk exposing clients to legal penalties and financial burdens. For example, Vale S.A., a mining company, paid a $55.9 million fine for ESG-based disclosure issues. 

Navigating regulations and reporting needs is vital. Lawyers need to be informed to help clients comply with complex Environmental, Social, and Governance rules. 

Liabilities & Reputation

Mismanaging Environmental, Social, and Governance leads to legal issues, reputational harm, and financial losses. According to a Reuters article, ESG-positive portfolios perform 0.13% better than benchmarks globally. 

Grasping ESG enables lawyers to advise on risk management, protecting clients’ reputation and profitability. Lawyers who don’t comprehend it risk leaving their clients vulnerable to unnecessary liabilities.

Client Expectations

With growing Environmental, Social, and Governance awareness, clients seek legal counsel on integrating it into business strategies and contracts. 

A 2019 McKinsey survey revealed that 83% of C-suite executives and investment professionals believe that ESG programs create long-term value. Failing to understand it may lead to client discontent and lost opportunities, as companies recognise the impact of ESG on profit, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.

By staying informed on Environmental, Social, and Governance matters, lawyers can better serve their clients and navigate the complex landscape of ESG-related regulations, risks, and opportunities.

3 Examples of ESG Gone Wrong

Here are three cases where companies faced significant legal and reputational consequences due to Environmental, Social, and Governance failures:

1. Volkswagen’s $125 million Emissions Scandal

In 2019, Volkswagen was fined $125 million for misleading customers about its cars’ emissions. Furthermore, in 2021, Volkswagen lost its bid for a High Court challenge to the penalty order. This was the highest penalty order ever made by the court for contravening consumer law. 

Volkswagen also faced billions of dollars in fines and legal settlements as a result of the emissions scandal. Not to mention damaging its reputation. 

Throughout the scandal, lawyers have been involved in managing lawsuits and regulatory penalties in various jurisdictions globally, as well as overseeing Volkswagen’s compliance with new regulations and requirements.

2. The Largest Marine Oil Spill in History

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered the largest marine oil spill in history. BP faced tens of billions of dollars in fines, compensation, and clean-up costs. 

BP also faced criminal charges and was required to pay criminal and civil penalties, as well as natural resource damages, which totaled over $60 billion.

Throughout the legal proceedings, lawyers played a crucial role in addressing lawsuits, regulatory actions, and contractual disputes arising from the incident. Legal professionals worked to ensure corporate social responsibility and address the environmental impact of the oil spill. 

3. Boohoo Modern Slavery Allegations

An investigation by The Sunday Times revealed that a garment supplier within Boohoo’s supply chain was paying its factory workers as little as £3.50 per hour. 

Boohoo faced legal scrutiny and a drop in its ESG score. Lawyers played a crucial role in advising the company on labor rights, ESG reporting, and supply chain transparency. Additionally, they helped manage potential legal liabilities related to social Environmental, Social, and Governance factors.

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5 Essential ESG Tips and Insights for Lawyers

Lawyers aiming to boost their Environmental, Social, and Governance expertise and offer improved support to clients should note these valuable tips. Keep these insights in mind as you navigate this quickly evolving landscape.

1. Stay Informed on ESG Developments

To effectively advise your clients, it’s crucial to remain current on Environmental, Social, and Governance regulations, reporting requirements, and industry trends. Regularly monitoring changes in the latest legislation and guidelines will enable you to provide well-informed guidance. Keep an eye on developments in corporate social responsibility, ESG reporting, and ESG score methodologies.

2. Evaluate and Manage Legal Risks

Help your clients identify and address potential legal liabilities and reputational risks associated with Environmental, Social, and Governance issues. Grasping its broader implications enables you to foresee and alleviate risks, safeguarding your clients’ interests. In doing so, you also ensure compliance with pertinent regulations.

3. Incorporate Clauses in Contracts

Help clients draft and review contracts by actively ensuring Environmental, Social, and Governance standards are clearly defined, incorporated, and upheld throughout their supply chain. Developing robust contractual clauses can help clients manage risks and obligations more effectively.

4. Conduct Thorough Due Diligence

Perform comprehensive due diligence for clients during mergers, acquisitions, and other transactions. Evaluating potential risks and liabilities associated with Environmental, Social, and Governance issues can help clients make informed decisions and manage potential challenges in the negotiation and integration processes.

5. Offer Proactive Advice

Provide proactive legal counsel to clients on ESG best practices, policies, and procedures. By proactively addressing potential challenges, you empower clients to fortify their strategies. This ultimately enhances their financial performance and reputation while ensuring compliance with changing regulations.

To conclude, ESG is vital in the legal field today. Lawyers must comprehend and handle these matters effectively. By keeping updated on latest trends, managing risks, adding clauses to contracts, performing due diligence, and giving proactive advice, lawyers offer essential support to clients for lasting success. Embracing the changes and best practices is crucial for both clients and your professional development.

If you would like to stay up to date on the latest ESG law, and other legal developments, get your free trial of Practical Law.

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