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ESG is 'mission critical.' Can Paul Weiss get law schools on board?

4 minute read

The Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP office in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

  • Firm is launching an ESG institute with UC Berkeley Law
  • It plans to get more law schools involved in ESG research

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Oct 4 - Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison has teamed up with the University of California, Berkeley School of Law to launch a first-of-its kind research initiative centered on ESG — the rapidly growing legal field of environmental, social and governance issues.

As the first partner school in the firm’s ESG and Law Institute, students and professors associated with Berkeley Law’s Business and Society Institute will work with Paul Weiss attorneys to conduct research, convene roundtables and assemble thought leaders in the ESG arena. Paul Weiss will provide two annual $25,000 scholarships to Berkeley students involved in the new institute in the hopes that they will help establish a cohort of young lawyers who are well versed in the many aspects of ESG practice. The firm plans to expand the institute and involve more law schools in the future.

The Berkeley partnership also reflects Paul Weiss' recent Bay Area expansion. The firm launched a Northern California office in July 2020. It now has 17 attorneys.

Institute director Dave Curran, who is also co-chair of Paul Weiss’ ESG advisory practice, said the institute will tackle the big picture, “existential” questions surrounding ESG in a way that lawyers advising clients on day-to-day matters don’t have the capacity to contemplate. And it will bring academic rigor to the conversation around ESG, he said.

“We need a way to convene thought leadership at an elevated and expanded level that I can’t simply do in running a practice,” Curran said. “We also need to involve a broader community, including academics.”

Amelia Miazad, faculty director of Berkeley Law’s Business in Society Institute, said she envisions the new partnership with Paul Weiss bridging the gap between theoretical discussions about ESG and what’s actually happening within companies. Current ESG research tends to fall into either a very practical category like corporate case studies, or very theoretical law review articles.

“What’s exciting here is that we can do something that is really framed for executives and professionals but still leverages that academic rigor and research,” Miazad said.

The research, polling and discussions that the Paul Weiss ESG and Law Institute produces will be publicly available, Curran said, noting that the field is evolving rapidly. Paul Weiss launched its dedicated ESG practice in March of 2020. Kirkland & Ellis; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Norton Rose Fulbright; and Shearman & Sterling were among the earliest firms to launch ESG practices.

“ESG has been around forever,” Curran said. “The difference in the last two years is lawyers recognizing that companies making obligations like social or environmental commitments have to actually live up to those commitments.”

Paul Weiss and its chairman Brad Karp have been notably vocal about social and political issues such as marriage equality, voter protection and reproductive rights. But the firm has also been targeted by critics who say its representation of fossil fuel clients makes it complicit in climate change.

Both Curran and Miazad said they hope the new institute will prompt law schools to incorporate more ESG training into their curriculum. Beyond Berkeley Law, few law schools offer ESG courses other than an occasional class taught by an adjunct, Curran said.

“We want the legal industry to recognize that it’s mission critical for lawyers to deeply understand ESG and how it intersects with the law,” Curran said. “We need students to be thinking about it. This is the fastest growing specialty that no one knows about.”

(Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that other firms also had dedicated ESG practices when Paul Weiss launched its practice last year.)

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