The following article was published by Law360 on May 5, 2021. It was written by Aebra Coe. Click here to view.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP's global partner for client sustainability Tim Wilkins has spent more than two decades guiding social justice, cultural and sustainability initiatives.
Wilkins leads Freshfields' sustainability practice, advising clients on regulatory, litigation and transactional issues related to environmental, social and governance, or ESG, matters. In April, he was elected as chair of the board of trustees of New York Public Radio.
"To be honest, two decades ago this really wasn't a practice," Wilkins said of the ESG arena. Now, it has taken off and is top of mind for clients and law firms alike, especially as the U.S. has undergone a "racial reckoning" over the last year, he said. Here, Wilkins discusses how ESG as a practice has coalesced in recent years and chats about his new role at New York Public Radio.
As someone who has practiced in an ESG-related space for two decades, how has the practice evolved since you started?
To be honest, two decades ago this really wasn't a practice. There was no integrated ESG practice. We had specialists on environmental regulation, human rights lawyers and corporate governance specialists, but the issues never really made it to the C-Suites of our clients as core strategic issues.
As a result, it really was just these last couple of years where we saw our firms moving ESG into the boardroom and C-Suite, which means not only the CEOs, but the general counsel were focusing on these ESG matters as core, strategic areas.
It was at that time I was appointed to be the global partner for client sustainability. We believe we were the first large, international firm to take that step. It was a way to bring all our separate practice areas, from transactions to litigation to regulatory, together in an integrated way to provide strategic advice in this new area to clients.
What has the impact on the practice been over the last year with everything happening in the world?
The pandemic surprised most of us in the field where, of course, there was a general slowdown in terms of corporate activity, but not as much in the ESG space.
Our clients have been making long-term bets on how to increase their renewable energies investments or tap financial markets on green bonds or other instruments, as well as acknowledging having the rewards of loyal customers, suppliers and employees who saw them as leaders on the sustainability front. Strong ESG-rated companies performed better in the stock market and certainly were considered the most attractive by investors during the pandemic.
The year also included this enormous moment of racial reckoning that happened after the tragic killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We saw businesses speaking publicly about ways they could really move their practices and operations in a way that had a positive, long-lasting contribution to building racial justice and racial equity among their customers.
We got involved in advising clients on novel strategic instruments like raising funds for sustainability social bonds where the proceeds could be used to invest, for example, in Black-owned businesses. Private equity funds set up separate funds to invest in owners who are women and people of color to build real equity. It was quite impressive to see the pivoting of business to use their corporate strength to further the calls from their customers and the world for greater racial justice and equity.
In what ways can and should law firms and the legal profession have a voice in the conversation around the social justice issues front and center in the country right now?
It is similar to the approach we're advising for our clients. Business and law firms recognize that they are integral parts of the societies in which we live. We can use our special talents really in three ways, in what I've been calling the ESG approach.
First, you have to look at your own house. Our firm had to think deeply about its own record around diversity. We have publicly announced targets to increase the number of people of color and other diverse groups, not only in who we hire, but also in retention in the law firm as they move up and to signal this through having more leaders of color in the law firm. This is an ambitious challenge that our senior leadership has been right out in front of.
The second thing we think hard about is collaborative impacts. In collaborative impacts, it's how do you work with clients, government officials, NGOs [and] academic think tanks to take on important challenges?
The one we're most proud of this last summer is [the] New York Circular City Initiative, in which we brought together members of the mayor's office, various public agencies, think tanks as well as many of our clients to see if we could bring circular economics to the challenges that New York City faces —both from an environmental point of view [and] a jobs and equity point of view.
Can we bring in more parts of the city in neighborhoods that may not have had the opportunities for green job growth? The report, which was issued this summer, is quite exciting to see. Thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic growth could happen by adopting these circular economic approaches.
The third thing is thought leadership. My brother [Harvard Law professor David B. Wilkins] and I did a [webinar] on thinking about race, sustainability and social justice. I've also written on that topic, and we continue to try to provide more of the most cutting-edge learning on how business can really use their strength, whether it's financial tools or people power, to go out into more communities and create change that's longer-lasting and positive on the racial justice front.
How did you get involved with New York Public Radio, and why was it important to you to get involved with the board?
I grew up in Chicago listening to public radio because my parents had it on all the time. Whether it was my father listening to the news or my mother, who was a music professor, always having the classical radio station on.
Radio has a really special place in the Black community. Appreciating how for generations radio was the place where you had an integrated audience, where these performers could tell stories and it would reach everybody in the community. As a result, I've always appreciated the power of radio to tell stories, and public radio has done it on the highest level.
How I specifically came to be on the board: I, as a junior associate, sat next to the last lawyer who was chair of New York Public Radio. I remember Peter [Darrow] being on the phone being eloquent and thoughtful and strategic, giving advice to the leaders of the station and thinking "that guy has the greatest job in the world." I got involved with the station as a board member two years ago.
I was approached by the trustees' committee. I think it was because of my experience on other boards, including the Public Theater Board, the New York City Economic Development Corporation Board and also as a former chair of the Opportunity Agenda, which is a social justice organization.
What are your goals as chair of the board of trustees?
I'm really proud to find out how the board can support a relatively new leadership team we have in place, with our CEO Goli Sheikholeslami and her leadership team in tackling the challenges that we see coming forward.
For me, I would love to see how we handle this challenge of digitization — most people now get their news and classical music from a digital source. How can we make sure that our stories, whether they start out on the radio or start with the Gothamist in print media, end up being in the pockets of all of our listeners so they can carry it with them on the go?
And then the second one is also to appreciate the demographic shifts that are happening, where younger and more diverse audiences are the least likely to get their media from the radio. If we are serving our mission of delighting and enhancing all New Yorkers and people in New Jersey, we need to find a way to assure that our stories, our research, our voices we hear on the radio reflect the diversity of our demographic, all the while keeping that magic which is public radio and the integrity of the news and storytelling.
To be honest, two decades ago this really wasn't a practice. Now, it has taken off and is top of mind for clients and law firms alike, especially as the U.S. has undergone a "racial reckoning" over the last year.