Lessons I Learned in Law

Adam Woodhall on how General Counsels can champion sustainability in their organisations

July 20, 2023 Heriot Brown Season 5 Episode 4
Lessons I Learned in Law
Adam Woodhall on how General Counsels can champion sustainability in their organisations
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to Adam Woodhall, founder and CEO of Lawyers for Net Zero - a non-profit that supports GCs and their teams to utilise their position as a corporate leader to enable effective engagement with climate and ESG issues.

Adam shares the three lessons he has learned in law including:

·      General Counsel are the most influential individuals in the legal sector. They interface with many colleagues in different roles across the organisation, and choose which law firms to work with. 

·      General Counsels have gone way beyond the ‘Department of No’! 

·      This is not theoretical - GCs are working on ESG and advocating for change in their organisations right now! If you, as a GC, are thinking of working in this field then know there are many others similar to you who are already making it happen. 


Adam reveals how many GCs are using ESG initiatives as a way of exercising their leadership. GCs often sit on the board of organisations or advise very senior management and are doing so with regards to issues on sustainability. 

 Adam has worked with over 100 in-house lawyers via Lawyers for Net Zero's ‘Leaders Programme’, including the global GCs from Rolls Royce, WPP, BUPA, Centrica, National Grid and Specsavers. Hear all about the programme which focusses on supporting GCs to generate action via their role through peer-to-peer networking and training. You can find out more about the programme here



Fancy a giggle?  Check out Adam’s sustainable stand up on YouTube where he purports to be Head of Sustainability for the Death Star! Watch it here.  


Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment


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Scott Brown  (0:01)  

Hi, welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law with me, Scott Brown, founder and Managing Director at Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. On this podcast, I'm joined by people from across the legal profession who are leaders in their field. And you get to hear about their career in law and the lessons that they've learned along the way. Hopefully, you leave it feeling inspired, and with new insights into what lawyers can achieve, were a great bunch. I'm delighted to be joined today by Adam Woodhill. Hey, Adam. Hello there. I'm looking forward to the chat. So Adam is a founder and CEO of Lawyers for Net Zero, which is a not for profit, which focuses on helping general councils on matters and issues around sustainability and educating them and helping them deliver on those areas. I'm really keen to hear of Adam’s route into how he's come around to working with lawyers and a bit more about his background. But thanks for joining us, Adam. How are things at Lawyers for Net Zero at the moment?


Adam Woodhall  (1:04)  

Yeah, it's going really well. Fantastic to see this. There's so many general counsel who are kind of wanting to lean into this. And actually, there's a few that are doing it kind of completely independent of our work. But then what's fantastic is that we're also helping some very high profile GCs, do that work to help drive ESG environmental, social and governance for those that don't know, and climate issues within their organisations. 


Scott Brown  (1:30)

Yeah, huge area and huge focus points. So I'm really keen to learn more about it and how you go about working. But to start off with, we'll jump into lesson one.


Adam Woodhall  (1:39)  

So the first lesson that I've learned is that really, General Counsel are the most influential individuals in the legal sector, particularly corporate and business side of things, but arguably, in the whole legal sector, because they are the people that do two particularly critical things, the most important thing is that interfacing directly with their colleagues, internally, the CEO, the CFO, heads of marketing, etc, etc, and are seen as the person that is the go to, obviously, for legal issues, but also compliance risk reputation, because of the GC both. It's the kind of the job role to look at this, but also because of the nature of the personalities that tend to become GCs, they're very good at kind of staying calm in a storm, looking at the horizons and working out what's important. So that's the most important reason as to why I believe that GCs are so influential. Then also, the second thing is, is when it comes down to it the GCs are the ones that are choosing which law firms to work with. Yeah. And so that's obviously a very important facet of what the GC and their team do. And metre, it's very competitive market in the private practice world. So the GCs can influence that as well.


Scott Brown  (2:59)

And you in lawyers for Net Zero, you're advising both law firms on how to on sustainability and how to market themselves in that area, or how to deliver value?


Adam Woodhall  (3:09)  

No, actually, we did, we made a choice, when we first set up that to trust that there would be other organisations which would do a good job of working with the private practice the law firms on how they respond to the need to take action on climate and environmental issues. And actually, nicely, the same week that we launched another organisation which has a similar name to us called the net zero lawyers Alliance also launched. Yeah. And then there's also another organisation which had been around for quite a few years called the legal sustainability Alliance. There is something else just launched called the legal charter 1.5 1.5 degrees centigrade maximum that it's referring to. And so we trusted that there would be good organisations launching or had launched to support directly law firms. And at the time, it was clear that there was no opportunities for GCs to be kind of have something that was devoted to them. Yeah. And, and actually, I'm somewhat surprised, but it still seems a case that globally, that doesn't appear to be any other organisation that's devoted to GCs and the kind of E of ESG agenda. Obviously, there's fantastic conferences, which will have speakers or they might even do a special day about ESG issues. But we feel privileged that were that sort of go to place for for the general counsel.


Scott Brown  (4:43)  

And how in the time from setting up, how's the landscape changed in ESG? For lawyers?


Adam Woodhall  (4:50)  

Yeah, good question. I think it's it's definitely developed. Because when we started out in a positive way, how we've seen things change it Is that GCs are clearly seeing that this is an opportunity for them to be developing their leadership. Because GCs overwhelmingly have become now corporate leaders. So they often sit on the the main board because of whether it's the company secretary or just their status anyway. And then also, because of all these other factors that their key advisors even if sometimes they're not on the on the board or the executive board. So that's something and we've seen more and more. And just something to clarify is that this isn't about suggesting to the GC, that they need to become a head of sustainability, or director of ESG. There is a small number that that's starting to happen. But actually, they are the exception, the rule is that actually, because GCs have this very broad role, and apart from probably the CFO, they're the only individual in the organisation who's got to look across the organisation. And actually, because it's their the GCs job, most of all, to kind of almost protect the organisation and support it to achieve its aims. And whereas obviously, the CFO is more about, you know, getting out there and making sure that the money's being made and saved. And the CEOs, you know, a lot of the CEOs job is to kind of sell the organisation, and as well as everything else underneath it. So what this means is that the GCs have got this great sort of it's in their day job to do this work. So what we're saying is actually GCs are fantastic at juggling balls. So they've got to do with all the solve that the inbox from hell that they're all they've always got, yeah, hitting them. So if they don't do this, or thing, one, it means that the business is losing out this great opportunity from them. And also, though, it's good for the business because of the the skills and talents they can bring to it. But also for the team, because it's something that's really interesting and engaging for legal teams to get involved with, especially kind of younger people tend to be, are almost demanding that their job has got something related to this. Absolutely. And then the final thing is, is, you know, what we've seen is, is great for the profile of the GC within their organisation, because they are positively being able to lean into something and utilise that corporate leadership role to kind of grow the status of their function and the team. So obviously, when it comes to, you know, arguing over budgets, they can at least hold the budget. And if they're being really clever, they can use this as a narrative as to why they need more budget, because this is such an important part because ESG has now become integral to all business. 


Scott Brown  (7:47)

Yeah, all sizes, and shareholder value and shareholder demand for ESG to be on the on the agenda. What advice would you have for someone that's looking to add to the role as a lawyer or general counsel in house in order to grab some of that, that growth space, which is ESG,


Adam Woodhall  (8:04) 

GCs had to go through quite gear change, to transfer from versus lGCs, were in private practice, and then they become a gun in house and then eventually got to general counsel. And it's a very different job. And the reason why I say this is because there can be a tendency or desire to want to be an expert on ESG. Well, the open secret is, that's impossible. Because number one, it's far too broad and deep than any body to become an expert on it. I mean, you know, chart GPT, probably is going to become an expert on ESG probably already is, yeah, but it's not human. So in terms of humans, it's impossible. Yeah. However, there will be slivers of ESG, which, obviously private practice, lawyers will be experts on it and know, pretty much everything that they need to know on a small sliver of it. But that's not the job of the GC. The reason why I say that is because it's to allow the GC to relax, because a lot of GCs that were put off by this, because they are now I don't know enough about. So I might know, they might call our GCs know, a bit about say, the s the social, or they're passionate about it, because it's something that was relevant to them, or they they definitely know quite a lot about the G the government's Yeah, but the environment is not the sustainability teams, and why don't we just trending on their toes and a bit bit uncomfortable with this? Actually, is it's almost the opposite. Is that number one, the sustainability teams? Overall? Well, we've never had a situation where a GC has gone to the head of sustainability or whatever it is and said, I'm thinking of joining lawyers net zero or getting involved in this where they had a sustainability hasn't gone hallelujah. Right, please. Yeah, we need all the help we can get. Yeah. Because actually, it's a very high profile department, this sustainability or whatever it's called in an organisation, but it's typically comparatively under So often, they need all the help they can get. So then the key thing is what this is all leading towards is you've relaxed, you've recognised, you don't need to be an expert on mess, take the first step doesn't actually matter too much what that first step is, right? Because it's about getting going. And that's what our leaders programme is highly focused on right supporting and giving permission to the GC to, you know, recognise, they don't need to be an expert, and then to start taking steps on this. And actually the best way as well that people can be seen to take taps, he's asking if they see others, like them taking steps. That's why it's really important that there are increasing numbers of GCs talking at events about what they're doing around ESG. But what we do is we kind of take that into a peer to peer environment. So our leaders programme, which is the core of what we do, is aimed at supporting those GCs to be in a group where there's other GCs that are all going through the same challenges, so they can learn from each other about the challenges that they're going through. And also they can get motivation from the fact that them or their colleagues in the group might be having successes. But also sometimes it's a bit of a group therapy session, because it's like, it's difficult, any source of change. And you know, you're dealing with politics, you're ambitious, some of your colleagues might not be as ambitious, etc, etc. So you've got to kind of work on these things like so that, you know, the headline is start it, the first step is what achieved any long journey?


Scott Brown  (11:40)  

Yeah, that's a really good overview. We had a roundtable a couple of weeks ago, actually, with lawyers on ESG. And there were quite a few that had been on the Cambridge course for sustainability. Yes. Do many of the members of lawyers for Net Zero go on that course? Or is it something you? Yeah, no.


Adam Woodhall  (11:56)  

So what is actually we see what lawyers for Net Zero, why we set up was one because we saw that GCs didn't have anybody focusing on them. And this is his great opportunity here. And we were very conscious of there's obviously the law firms doing fantastic work in terms of the specialist advice on especially the legal side of things. And then there's things such as the Cambridge Institute, sustainable leadership, which are fantastic for the kind of educational side of this traditional more kind of training side to build people's knowledge up. And both our experience and also actually, a lot of what we do is based on really good behavioural and social science. And one of the key understandings with that is that education is important. But it doesn't definitively mean people will take action. So you can know a lot and do basically nothing. But there's quite a few people that don't know virtually anything, and they get lots done. So now the thing is, is what we we actually, we've got it within our net zero action principles, which are, they're kind of the document that we provide to the GCs when they join the programme, is to absolutely encourage them to learn. And what we can say is, it's if you've got a choice, though, do something like might be as simple as setting up a legal team working group, or changing a few contract clauses to make them climate friendly, right. And then action can be also learning. And so we have definitely had some GCs, join the Cambridge students stainable leadership, and there's quite a few others like that. But that's the one of the best known to enable themselves to feel more and more confident, right? But what it is, is that it's how do you create the best virtuous cycle. And so what we say is taking those first steps, is the key thing towards it. And then once you've got yourself moving, typically what people do is go, You know what I'd like to know more. But then rather than it feel like almost like a burden, doing something like that Cambridge course, which is a hardware course, it's like almost like a day a week, you've got to do, it actually feels like wow, I'm really excited by this because you've got all the kind of benefits coming from the work that you're doing with your colleagues.


Scott Brown  (14:23)  

Lesson two,


Adam Woodhall  (14:24)

great. Okay, so lesson two. So I think one of the things is that it's it's recognising that GCs have gone way beyond the Department of No, right? Because what we've got to think about is their kind of the history of how law has developed over say, the last three or four decades and effectively, you know, in the 80s, even the 90s the role of the GC was basically just to procure legal services. And, and, and, and if they were to advise it, really only to advise on pure legal matters. And then what What happened was that it started growing as an opportunity, as these things tend to happen. It started in the states where that became more prevalent that the business was thinking that the GC could do more than just be the Department of NOAA and saying, well, the law says you can't do this. And then also one of the things is because he was both the Department have seen as department No. And also, it was spending a lot of money on law firms, it was just seen as a pure cost centre, and who wants to have to use lawyers most of the time. So the the challenge is that it wasn't seen as a particularly sexy role to get into. There's a famous and very unfair phrase actually saying that, you know, if you can't do teach, and there was a little bit 3040 years ago, if you can't do law properly, while you go off and be a, you know, an in house, but as previously advertised, that's actually in my opinion, completely flipped. Yeah, in that actually, the GCs now are the most important role in the legal sector. Yeah. Because it's through staying in probably the the notes, and then definitely building in the 10s. And now we're in the 20s, it's going on superspeed. There's this such a central integral role. And if we think about, particularly the size of the legal department, compared to even the finance team, and especially some other parts of the business, it's a massively disproportionate influence that can be used, which is which, now, this is one of the things that, you know, we've got to be aware of is it that brings a lot of responsibility. And so it can, you know, it takes a certain type of person who's got broad shoulders, and to mix a metaphor can juggle some balls with those good, good, the arms are under those shoulders, making sure that critically, this isn't about the you know, it's reason why we don't encourage the GCs to become specialists first, because you don't have time to become a specialist. It's effectively going right. Okay, we know we've got to do something with greenwashing. I don't have time to learn about greenwashing. So I'm gonna delegate that to a team member, or I'm gonna get one of our law firms who they've been telling is I went to a conference that they did, and they did talk all about greenwashing. Great, I'm gonna get them to help me out. So it's like, what any good leader does is choose who are the right people in their organisation? To help them with making sure that it happens.


Scott Brown  (17:25)  

Interesting. Yeah, it's a complex area, the role has massively expanded right from those those days in the 90s, and 80s. And long may continue. Adam came today on his bike so clearly lives and breathes the issues that he's that he's talking about. 


Adam Woodhall  (17:41)  

Well, interesting with that, I mean, obviously, cycling is the most eco form of transport, because it's a particularly efficient form. And actually, there's a primary reason why is I got here quicker than I would have done under any other form of transport. Even if it had been a pillion on the back of a motorbike. I got here probably quicker, because the cycle lanes that I take and things like that. So I'm pretty fast cycling. But also, it's a beautiful day outside. So it was gorgeous to be part of that. And you know, the icing on the cake was the fact that I know that it was being greener. Yeah. So you know, it's always good to kind of try and live and in this case, breathe the kind of ideals that you're trying to achieve.


Scott Brown  (18:24)  

Yeah, absolutely. Zoe and I that's here. Today. We got we've got Lime bikes here. What's your take on those littering the city?


Adam Woodhall  (18:32)  

Lime bikes I mean, it was one of the things actually, it's that I've met the GC of lime just a couple of weeks ago, in fact. And what it is, is that with any sort of new situation in life in society, you're going to get things happening, which whilst we work out how to deal with it as a society. So I know that certain cities have had some real problems with things like this, like, actually the predecessor, effectively the predecessor, obviously, the lime bikes was the what became known as the Boris bikes, even though actually the idea came on when it was when Ken Livingstone was the mayor, actually, those that started off that the inspiration for the those actually, were, was at a similar scheme in Paris, right. And this was about a good 10 years or more ago, okay. And actually, London learned a lot from the prison experience, because the prisons, the first big city to do anything like this, and literally, most of the bikes ended up in the same Yeah. Because they didn't work out systems of how to make sure. So what we're kind of going through with these is that with lime bikes, and things like that, that there is a kind of littering issue around the lime bikes, but what we're gonna do is you're going to try these things, and then some work some downs, and then you learn from things and that's one of the things that in a sense, lime is quite an entrepreneurial soft company and when things actually what we suggest to the GCs is actually, they've got opportunities to be more entrepreneurial themselves, but kind of there's a phrase in intrapreneurial. So because you can it's, you know, being an entrepreneur, you've got to test things, you got to take a few risks, you've got to do things that you don't know whether they're going to work. Yeah. And so that's a good business leader is going to use some of those characteristics when they're trying things. And so that's what we recommend for the GCs to be doing in the work. And then, obviously, it's great with Lime that they're trying these things, and then hopefully, fairly quickly, work out how to make sure that it gets all the value without littering.


Scott Brown  (20:39)  

Yeah, no, I think it's a net positive rate that people are using them loads more, getting around in a cleaner way and more. It seems safe enough. Prior to lawyers for Net Zero, tell us a bit about your your background.


Adam Woodhall  (20:51)  

So yeah, my background is that I had worked for 15 years before setting up glycinate zero on how do you generate action around climate in business, right? For the first 10 years or so it was focused very much on large organisations, and behavioural change, particularly through kind of employee engagement types of processes, okay. And that was fantastic, because it got to know a lot about how businesses work, and did some great projects. And what I came to discover was that that's all bottom up, actually never had the sort of momentum generation that you'd expect. Everybody thought it would create a lot of momentum, but it's, and there's many organisations that tried, but nobody's managed to nail it. And the reason why is because it's just basically impossible to do bottom up. So then what I did was I kind of decided to jump ship from this working with the big supertankers of corporates to actually work with the kind of nippy speedboats of startups, which work in clean tech and sustainability and circular economy and renewables and things like that. Okay, so all these kinds of small companies that were coming up with some fantastic ideas, and basically I was working with them on how do they build that kind of go to market strategy? And how do they create what I called their strategic story, to enable engagement with their markets with whatever tech that they'd come up with. And that went really well. And actually, it was, they was fantastic to work with some of them. And they came up with some great stories with them, and they're doing really well. But what I recognised was that the climate narrative was needing such energy and momentum, that we couldn't wait for the startups that I was working with to scale. And also, actually, the kind of little known secret is that we've got most of the solutions that we need to the climate problem. But they're not being used, widespread. So I can give you a chapter and verse on that, I'm not going to bore you on that. But the there's, if if anybody's really interested, if there's any kind of real kind of sustainability nerds out there, who wants more, go to Project drawdown, it's fantastic resource. And they've got amazing things in there showing you how we could go to a wall, keep a 1.5 degree world, right and with technology with solutions that have been tried and tested globally, okay. So I'd recognise that that we needed to kind of actually get societal momentum going. And then what I then saw was that there was this real opportunity to work with maybe that with the professions on how they can make things happen. And then as a good entrepreneur knows, actually, you can't just try and work with everybody, you got to narrow it down. And then through some, some serendipity and but then also strategic thinking, I realised that the legal sector didn't have much attention on it. But then even more focus was once I researched the legal sector, I realised that in house didn't have that space. And that's a good idea. But that's the sort of idea you and I could have come up with down the pub. And what's important is not having the idea, but it's about how you're going to make change happen. And also keeping that going. So what I recognised was that the key facet of this was working with the GCs on this peer to peer process. And that's, that's the big thing. So it's, it's cool. We call our leaders programme, peer to peer plus. Okay, so there's these kind of champions groups, which are at the core of it, where we get four GCs working together. And then there's some kind of other tools that we have like a whatsapp community and champions database and a few other things to get help them build the momentum. So that's something that at the moment to many GCs might seem like a bit intimidating, a bit like that's somebody else's job, etc. And totally understandably, they might feel that to actually where they're just really really finding that they're getting loads of value out of it giving loads of value, and transforming that sort of narrative. So then what happens is we can start to be a small part of what can transform society, so that we keep a livable planet for all.


Scott Brown  (25:20)  

We'll move on to lesson three.


Adam Woodhall  (25:22)  

Lesson three is, I suppose, touched upon it really is that General Counsel, it's, it's this isn't a theoretical thing about how they can work on ESG. This is happening. So you've got lots of General Counsel, that are really getting value out of that being part of the transformation, around netzero, around climate around other environmental issues in their organisation. And one of the things are as an organisation, whilst our main work is on this leaders programme, we do a lot of advocacy. And this is part of the reason why I'm talking to you now, because GCs aren't actually the sort that particularly push themselves out there to go and speak on platforms that much. So what we do is we partially create there support them to be on those platforms. But also, we're kind of aggregating and saying, look, there's, there's loads of these GCs, who are not wanting to necessarily promote this, but they're doing all this work. They're making all this happen. And they are an integral part of this. So if you as a GC, are thinking that this might be something you could do, actually, there's loads of other GCs out there that are already making it happen in their organisation.


Scott Brown  (26:37)  

Right, then you're connecting them. Excellent. So how would someone that's interested find out more about worship, and as you


Adam Woodhall  (26:44)  

obviously we've got our website, lawyers and zero.com. And our main social is LinkedIn, the company page search for that. And then also very happy for people to connect with me Adam Woodall on LinkedIn as well. Great.


Scott Brown  (26:57)  

We'll share the links in the in the in the episode description and bio, so that people can find that and the other the other platform was just renamed project


Adam Woodhall  (27:06)  

that was called Project drawdown. Yes, it was fantastic. That sounds


Scott Brown  (27:10)  

like a great resource. And then just touching on your, your LinkedIn profile and a conversation we had. So the comedian, sustainability comedian.


Adam Woodhall  (27:20)  

Yes. So before I set up liason at zero, and when I was still I was at scalps was the end of my sort of work, trying to engage with like the big corporates, and I was trying to think, right, how could we do something that makes sustainability fully engaging? So I thought, well, can we make it appropriately funny? Because obviously, you can make things inappropriately funny and it goes down like a lead balloon, right? There is a course literally called Sustainable stand up, right? And I did this course and learn how to be a stand up but within the framework of environment, okay. And you can literally you can find me it's on the it's on YouTube, so if anybody's that that and I'd be amazed if anybody bothers doing this, but if you do, you can, if you search for Adam Woodall Star Wars, sustainable standup right. And because I basically my skit was about how I became the head of sustainability for the Deathstar. Right now. That's my sort of routine was raised around that


Scott Brown  (28:30)  

night. That sounds good. That's definitely worth worth checking out for a laugh. Well, it's been a pleasure learning more about Laura's for net zero and have a chat, Adam, it's something obviously, you're really passionate about. And it's really interesting to hear how lawyers and general counsel can push that issue forward and where you can support on that. So I hope this generates interest in the network and in membership.


Adam Woodhall  (28:53)  

Thank you very much for inviting me.


Scott Brown  (28:59)  

Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed that episode with Adam, check out our episodes from series one to four. There's a lot of a lot of great content in our back catalogue. But until next time, thanks for listening