Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe has hired Ashley Walter as a partner in Seattle from Fenwick & West to expand its environmental, social, and governance capabilities amid growing demands for such expertise.
He works with companies and boards on ESG matters such as oversight, disclosures, investor engagement, and compliance. He advised clients such as Amazon.com Inc., Cisco Systems, Facebook Inc., Fitbit Inc., and Symantec as leader of Fenwick’s corporate social responsibility governance and compliance practice.
Company emphasis on ESG has bolstered the need for lawyers to help corporations live up to demands that range from diversity and inclusion to data security to climate regulations.
ESG has become a board-level governance issue, a shift from recent years, Walter said. “Orrick has recognized this and wants to invest in being able to provide this kind of governance expertise,” he said.
“We are excited to invest in expanding our CSR capabilities as our clients and their financial sponsors are increasingly focusing on ESG as key metrics — and regulators are heightening their focus as well,” said Matthew Gemello, global head of Orrick’s corporate business unit, in a statement.
Growing investor focus on ESG has given companies fast-increasing financial incentives to ensure they’re compliant with best practices and provide transparency on ESG issues.
ESG-related assets topped $12 trillion in 2018, well-beyond the $639 billion from two decades ago, according to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.
Researchers found that 90% of the largest 500 companies by market cap published sustainability reports in 2019, up from 86% in 2018, according to a report by the Governance and Accountability Institute.
In its 2021 proxy voting guidelines, BlackRock Inc. said it would consider voting against committee members “where the board has failed to exercise sufficient oversight with regard to material ESG risk factors.” The behemoth investor has focused especially on climate risk, putting companies on notice that BlackRock would ask how they were mitigating such risk and working toward a global zero net emissions future.
Though its acronym might seemingly limit its application, ESG is a way of categorizing non-financial factors that are critical to the production of long-term value, Walter said, calling it a “large tent” with many pieces under it.
A former Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati associate, Walter said he was drawn to the clarity of Orrick’s vision with respect to ESG and how the firm could provide legal services to clients.
“We both understood that this was a very significant trend, not just kind of a business trend generally, but also a trend that really companies would be looking to lawyers specifically to be able to provide advice in this area,” Walter said.
His goals over the next couple of years are to help boards think through ESG issues, not merely to respond to triggers in an ad hoc or isolated manner. He said he wants to view the issues through a holistic framework that helps companies develop a sophisticated program.
Orrick isn’t the only law firm to begin investing in ESG-related offerings for clients. Gibson Dunn & Crutcher launched its own ESG practice earlier this month. Mayer Brown also on Monday announced the launch of its ESG blog to provide guidance to businesses and clients.