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The Inside View

Are lawyers the enemy of sustainability execs?

We love to hate them (or at least hate to love them), but the real problem with lawyers may be with us — their clients. Here's what three CSOs, all lawyers, counsel.

“All they say is no,” said Dr. Temple Grandin about lawyers. Dr. Grandin is a preeminent animal welfare scientist. At a recent presentation, she proclaimed she wished she could throw all the lawyers out of the room. She explained how an attempt to share animal welfare progress publicly was thwarted by a legal team, even though the data was positive.

She’s not alone. In my travels and discussions with peers, the topic of working with lawyers draws some sighs and exasperation. I hear: They block me. They’re barriers. It’s us versus them.

Is there a natural tension between the worlds of sustainability and legal?

I’m not scot-free in this area. I’ve complained about legal scrutiny, too. Given my own angst about the subject, I wanted to dig deeper, and delve beyond the surface about the sustainability-legal dynamic. I talked with three chief sustainability officers who are educated and trained as lawyers, from divers sectors: MillerCoors, Golden State Foods and Georgia-Pacific.

I wanted to know: What did each learn from their legal pedigree to make them effective sustainability leaders? What advice do they have for those that are struggling with their legal counterparts? How can the relationship between the legal and sustainability staffs be optimized?

And: Are lawyers friend or foe?

What I learned and what I reflected led to a revelation. Hang on for what that is.

What CSO-lawyers counsel

Interestingly, all presented their core suggestions in a model framework—with conviction and powerful arguments.

Kim Marotta (University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School), Director of Sustainability at MillerCoors, spent 13 years as a public defender in Milwaukee for clients charged with adult crimes.

Kim Marotta, MillerCoors
The Marotta Model: Cooperate—Collaborate—Cohesion

- Marotta positions “cooperating” at the lower end of effectiveness. Consider a sustainability report, for example. You call the legal department. “We have a draft sustainability report. Can you review it?”

- The next step up is “collaborating.” You talk to legal. Let them know we have a report to do, highlight deadlines and express the need for their help and feedback.

- The highest level is “cohesion.” You bring legal into the process at the very beginning. “We need to develop the strategy and our objectives. Let’s do this together.”

John Page (University of Pennsylvania Law School) leads sustainability at Golden State Foods, a worldwide food service distribution company.

John Page Golden State Foods
The Page Pyramid:  Risk: Minimize Not Avoid—Passion—SME on Strategic Goals

I asked Page if he has schizophrenia, with a conflicting role of leading both legal and CSR. He said at times there is a sense of a split personality but he avoids it by compartmentalizing his time as follows:

- 25 percent: Manage risk: Protect the company

- 30 percent: Passion: Stretch the company on the triple bottom line

- 45 percent: Execution: Implementing strategy

Bill Frerking (University of Missouri—Columbia School of Law) leads sustainability at Georgia-Pacific.

Bill Frerking Georgia-Pacific sustainability

The Frerking Framework:
Risk mitigation—Advantage—Righteous

- Risk Mitigation: Compliance and ethics are necessary but insufficient to be sustainable. Meeting base expectations are evolving all the time. For example, CSR reporting used to be considered leadership 10 years ago. Not now. It’s become foundational.

- Advantage: Bringing a competitive distinction to the customer that offers a societal benefit.

- Righteous: Making people feel better about themselves and doing the world a favor. Frerking used the GP enMotion® hand cleaning machine as an example. He sold me on it! This touchless system provides excellent social and environmental benefits, and according to Frerking saves customers on average about 30 percent in both towel use and cost over multi-fold towels.

These discussions led me to realize how the logic and rigor of a lawyer’s mind is a valuable asset to a company’s sustainability future. Sustainability professionals can learn from legal colleagues. Here are some of the best tips. 

Six tips from sustainability/legal leaders

  1. “Make it Mother Goose simple,” says Page. “The legal mind can aggregate a lot of data and present a precise summary.”
  2. “See the lawyers as an extension of what your are doing. See them as your right hand,” says Marotta
  3. Page adds: “In all great relationships, communication is the leading element. Set aside the time and be willing to find at least one person in legal and ask how they want to receive and review information.”
  4. Think about the Tesla “insane mode.” Frerking brought up how Tesla has a campaign showing how you can go from a dead stop to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds. How did lawyers approve this? “There must be strong relationships between business leaders and attorneys.”
  5. A “challenge” culture is a good thing, according to Frerking. “We don’t have a veto right, but what we have is a ‘challenge flag’ and enough humility up and down the organization to use it.”
  6. Look for all the implications. “When practicing law, you need to look at the long-term strategy to win the case and what all the implications are,” adds Marotta.

Here’s the revelation: Legal is not the problem. It is with us, the sustainability professionals.

Yes, legal teams are tough, thorough and omnipresent. We need them and their discipline in the sustainability field. It’s a sign that sustainability has arrived when the lawyers care so much!

When I shared these discussions with Dr. Grandin, she told me, “I want to work with more lawyers like these. We need more legal visionary thinkers versus ones who think ‘inside the box’ and block progress.” 

So rather than throw the lawyers out of the room, let’s give them their due for doing their job, and doing it well. Even when we encounter those that are the “blockers,” it just means it’s time to throw the sustainability execs into the room to persuade management to make a different decision. 

Toughen up. Don’t lie down when the lawyers or financial experts ask their probing questions. Prepare better arguments to win your case. 

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