Activist lawyers, not in-house counsel, are typically seen as change agents who advocate for human rights laws, environmental protections, fair wages, and more. But the role of general counsel (GC) is changing rapidly, propelled in part by consumers pressuring companies to drive positive change and not just reap profits. Berkeley Law, spearheaded by its Business in Society Institute, has emerged as a leader in that movement.
“Corporate lawyers have to consider what is right, not just what is legal,” says Amelia Miazad ’02, the institute’s founding director and senior research fellow. “Companies now have to think about environmental, social, and governance issues, and that falls squarely within the role of the general counsel.”
This evolving landscape raises complex legal and ethical questions that in-house attorneys must navigate. To foster better understanding of the issues, the institute hosts symposia, conducts research, develops student internships, and creates new curricula and courses.
One of the nation’s first law school programs to tackle these issues, the institute was co-founded by Miazad and Adam Sterling ’13, executive director of the school’s Berkeley Center for Law and Business. “This builds on our efforts to teach aspiring lawyers, practitioners, and entrepreneurs that social accountability is just as important as—and often central to—a company’s bottom line,” Sterling says.
Students in Berkeley Law’s fall 2017 Business in Society course met with GCs from companies such as Salesforce, Nestlé, Cliff Bar, Levi’s, and Lyft. Those attorneys described varied challenges of managing risk during crises, and the importance of strategically advising CEOs and boards.
After being accused that one of its fish suppliers in Thailand trafficked in forced labor, Nestlé worked to end the illegal practice. The company partnered with a local non-governmental organization, published its report on forced labor, and worked with Thailand’s government to ensure proper enforcement of area laws. “It’s an example of how lawyers are weighing not only legal risk, but also reputational risk,” Miazad says.
The institute allows students to gain insights and experience in this arena.
Lauren Kelly-Jones ’19, who developed the Nestlé case study as an intern with the company, has “come to view social justice as intrinsic to business purpose.” Ben Toussant ’18 researched the evolving roles of GCs and chief compliance officers. Ariana Shaffer ’18 and Sarah Mirza ’18 spent the fall semester in Chile working for a nonprofit that helps Latin American businesses embrace corporate responsibility and empower inside counsel.
“Law students today are looking for ways to make a difference, not only in their firms or their companies, but in their communities and the world as a whole,” says Seth Jaffe, Levi’s GC. “They must learn early on how the general counsel can work strategically to lead corporations toward productive and beneficial roles in society.”