Being a positive force for change
Global Managing Partner Matthew Layton and Global Senior Partner Jeroen Ouwehand reflect on our unique ability as conveners to influence change for the better.
How has the last year affected our understanding of what it means to be a responsible business?
Jeroen: At the moment, we’re living through a series of shock waves that are reverberating around the world. This has prompted people to step back and reassess their own individual purpose: Where do they best bring value, and what are their expectations for the future? As a people business, that ripples through our firm. It frames the changing aspirations and expectations of our people and our clients and so we need to look at how we respond as a firm and reflect on our own role in society. Businesses are equally reflecting on and articulating their purpose and the reasons why they exist. It’s not just about profits and generating shareholder value. This is not a ‘fad’ but increasingly a key driver of strategy.
Matthew: These extended periods of uncertainty and change have certainly brought many new challenges for our firm, our people, our clients and our communities. Throughout, it has been important to maintain our focus on our strategic priorities, particularly around responsible business. Our teams have responded to those prolonged pressures with incredible commitment and fortitude, but there continues to be a thirst to understand and help shape the ‘new normal’.
I can’t say exactly what the future of work will look like, but it will be about listening, learning, sharing perspectives and experiences and collaborating with our people and our clients to work out how we evolve and develop as an organisation, and also how we consolidate our commitments to meet our responsibilities as a leading global business.
This year, we made the move to report against the World Economic Forum’s new Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics. What prompted this move?
Matthew: It’s clear to us that if we want to make progress on these issues – the broader Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues and our responsible business commitments – having appropriate and ambitious metrics in place drives the measurement and transparency needed to really see how we are progressing. The challenge is that there are a plethora of different metrics, which can make it difficult to decide which to use, and which are not always equally suitable for different sectors.
We participated in the discussions that led to the development and formulation of the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics, and we saw the benefit in consolidation and harmonisation around a standardised reporting framework, consistent with other global businesses, to drive change collectively in terms of our social licence. They also enable us to see how our progress against our goals compares with our clients and our peer firms.
ESG issues are now at the top of the boardroom agenda. How are we interacting with our clients on these issues?
Jeroen: Yes, there is more and more of a spotlight on ESG - whether that’s around climate, how we deal with natural capital, how we deal with human capital and what governance there is around that. The speed of ESG developments differs across the world – in particular when it comes to the ‘E’ (Environment), Europe is generally seen as leading but there’s a lot of catching up happening in the US under Biden and China has now made its own climate commitments. We have been advising on what we would now call ESG-related matters for many years, but what we’re really starting to do now is bring all of this global experience together to support our clients wherever they are on their individual journeys to becoming more sustainable (which is not just about climate).
Last September, we signed a statement from business leaders for “renewed global collaboration”, through which we committed to partner with the UN, government and civil society to enhance multilateralism and global governance to combat corruption, build resilience and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How important are these partnerships to us, particularly as we look to the future?
Matthew: As a global law firm, we are in a very strong position to support and convene debate around all of the SDGs and we can do that in collaboration and partnership with clients, with regulators, governments, public policy makers and with our suppliers and the many NGOs we work with. We’re able to combine our expertise in better law, better regulation, and better governance with the skills, capabilities and talents of others to bring about sustainable change in these areas. We also benefit as an organisation from those partnerships. Nobody has all the answers, so the ability to share experiences, and bring those insights back into our organisation to see how we can develop as a stronger and more responsible business is incredibly powerful.
Jeroen: Interestingly last year, I interviewed some of the CEOs and chairs of our NGO partners and – unprompted – they all commented on the structure and professionalism with which we approach these partnerships and our Theory of Change. SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals) is really the key to all of the SDGs because it’s through collaboration that we will achieve the others. But supporting the SDGs is not just about partnerships with NGOs, as Matthew says. It is also driving our own responsible business agenda and strategy more broadly.
We are increasingly asking ourselves whether the work we do with clients aligns with our responsible business principle as set out in our Code of Conduct: We will contribute to building a just, fair, sustainable, and prosperous society. We consider the impact of our work on our clients and their multiple stakeholders, as well as the wider community. We promote human rights [and do no harm]. We need to make sure we ‘walk the talk’ on this. None of this is easy, and this often involves complex and nuanced decision making and debate, but those debates are happening very regularly in the firm.
You touched on our updated Code of Conduct, which launched this year. How important was this to you?
Jeroen: I am very proud of our Code of Conduct for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is our Code – we listened to our people and their lived experiences through the firmwide culture survey we conducted with Principia, and we responded to that. Secondly, its five principles are easy to remember, and while it will take time for them to be embedded in the DNA of the firm, I am already seeing people use them in daily language. And thirdly, our Code is not a rule book, or “thou shalt not” type of doctrine. It’s a set of principles that inspires and resonates with people – in their personal and professional lives. I would like to think these were principles that we were living anyway so it’s really a matter of articulating them in a clear way so that people hold each other to account in a positive way.
I would like to think these were principles that we were living anyway so it’s really a matter of articulating them in a clear way so that people hold each other to account in a positive way.
Matthew: For me, it draws out the strengths of the firm at its best. It’s accessible to everybody, and in everything you do, you can use it as a touchstone. Nobody’s perfect, but it helps you ask yourself: have I been following our Code of Conduct? Even around the Leadership group table there have been occasions when we have come back and asked ourselves: did we let everybody speak up? Did we embrace challenge? Were we inclusive enough in that discussion? If we can get everybody into the habit of thinking like that, it will be immensely powerful in the shaping the future of the firm.
We also became a founder of the Global Business Collaboration (GBC) for Better Workplace Mental Health this year. Why was this important?
Matthew: In many ways the pandemic has really brought to the fore the mental health challenges that we are facing in society. I think everybody’s mental health and wellbeing was affected in some way during the pandemic, either directly or indirectly, but there is still a huge stigma around it. We have got some great programmes and support but we are a high performance organisation, which can sometimes make it difficult for people to talk about weaknesses and vulnerabilities. So it’s really important for leaders to be able to talk about some of their own experiences in order to help others do the same.
The GBC is a collaboration between leading global businesses all sharing very similar experiences, and engaging with science, leading mental health organisations and research institutions to bring together the very best initiatives and actions to tackle this huge problem, which is growing every year, and bring about real advancements and change in this area.
Finally, reflecting the theme of our Report this year – how do you think we at Clifford Chance can create sustainable change?
Jeroen: There are two sides to being a responsible business: one is doing business responsibly ourselves; the other is rising to the responsibility as a global business to play our part in driving positive change. If we want to be the global law firm of choice, we have to step up to that responsibility and bring together our skills and expertise to build a more inclusive, sustainable future.
'Just Transition’ is a great example of this – many organisations are going through an energy transition, but what does that mean for the community? What does that mean for people in developing nations? And what does it mean for human rights? We have a strong human rights practice, a strong renewable energy practice, and we have strong financing and governance capabilities around all of this. As we increasingly bring those ESG factors together, I believe we can be a very positive force for change.
Matthew: I agree - we are really in a unique position as a global law firm. We have got incredible expertise, with the power to convene public, private and third sector collaborations. Regulators and governments want to hear what we think about pressing issues because of our ability to look right across the globe. Through all that we do, we have an amazing contribution to make, to campaign for sustainable change, and we must remember that – indeed it is our shared responsibility.