ESG in Practice
Environmental, social, and governance focus brings David Curran (’86) full circle in his legal career.
In his first job out of law school, David Curran (’86) was on track to make partner at a respected New York law firm when he decided that being a trial lawyer wasn’t what he wanted to do.
Instead, his unconventional career path led him to embrace the intersection of law and a movement that would become known as environmental, social, and governance (ESG). He cofounded a startup legal tech company and held many different C-suite roles, including general counsel of a public company before age 40. Most recently, he was chief business officer at software company FiscalNote. Over the years, he was happiest leading transformational tech companies or advising them on legal, compliance, and regulatory issues. He never imagined he’d ever return to a large law firm.
But that changed with a 45-minute meeting in January 2020 with Brad Karp, the chairman of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The conversation began with the two of them outlining a series of ESG roundtables for the firm and its clients. By the end of the call, they talked about creating a brand new practice area for the firm. Two months later, in the capstone to his career, Curran became the firm’s first chief sustainability and ESG officer.
“I’ve always cared about interesting work and making an impact,” Curran says. “This is the kind of role that allows you to do both.”
Curran had been working in ESG long before it became a recognized industry specialty. For most of his career, he’s been working in-house to manage ethics, compliance, risk management and reputational issues. Recognizing the growing field, he helped BU Law create a concentration in risk management and compliance in 2017.
After conducting a series of roundtables at Thomson Reuters aimed at lawyers about the #MeToo movement in 2018, Curran realized he had tapped into a more significant trend that risked blindsiding the legal industry. Not enough lawyers were prepared to give the kind of wide-ranging advice that ESG demands. ESG encompasses everything from a company’s impact on the environment to how much it pays its executive team and how well it treats its human capital and responds to social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
At Paul, Weiss, Karp saw the need for a greater focus on ESG, spurred by public pressure for companies to address broader social issues that matter to all stakeholders. He also noticed that Curran’s background and experience aligned perfectly with the firm’s needs.
You need carefully crafted policies and procedures as well as mechanisms to track, measure, monitor, and report on [ESG] progress.
“My specialty has been making general counsel and law firms aware of the role lawyers need to play in bringing order to what is largely a quixotic and chaotic space,” Curran says. “Even the smartest lawyers I knew were not well versed on these issues.”
Since Curran started the paradigm-shifting operations role at Paul, Weiss, demand for ESG has only intensified, fueled by societal inequities exposed by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.
In 2021, the transition from a Trump to a Biden administration sent companies and their ESG advisers racing to keep up with the shifting regulatory landscape. Companies need ways to measure compliance to avoid reputational hits as well as being fined or sued, whether complying with the law or meeting strict standards they have set for themselves.
“That’s all lawyering,” Curran says. “You need carefully crafted policies and procedures as well as mechanisms to track, measure, monitor, and report on progress.”
Curran moderates thought leadership programs that are popular with in-house lawyers and executives. For example, hundreds of general counsel tuned in for “Crisis Management in Unprecedented Times,” featuring Don Liu, Target’s executive vice president and chief legal & risk officer, and Jeannie Rhee, a Paul, Weiss partner who worked with Robert Mueller in the Special Counsel’s Office.
Another roundtable titled “ESG and Board Diversity Equity & Inclusion: Connecting Aspiration to Action” featured key Nasdaq executives and others sharing their insights on how organizations can identify, onboard, and retain diverse talent.
Curran’s nine-person team educates clients about ESG and works with lawyers throughout the firm to coordinate the needs of clients and help them navigate ESG issues. The practice group incorporates data analytics, program management, and quantitative analysis to help clients track their ESG goals.
Most other law firms that have created ESG practices have not adopted such an integrated approach, he says. Their ESG efforts are often within existing practice groups such as environmental or employment law. But Curran expects that to change within a few years as the ESG movement evolves and grows.
The shift should open up opportunities for lawyers who are just entering their careers and hoping to make a difference in the world.
“You can put your passion together with your skills,” Curran says. “You can have an impact on policy and social movements by leveraging the power of your training as a lawyer.”