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24 March, 2023

EY Survey: Growing sustainability risks put pressure on law departments

  • EY Law and Harvard Law School study finds General Counsel feel business leaders don’t fully appreciate sustainability risks
  • Law departments most concerned about reputational risks of sustainability, but still focus more on compliance
  • Managing risks where there is a lack of clear guidance from regulators identified as biggest challenge

Law departments around the world are facing a rising tide of risks relating to sustainability, but they do not feel that business leadership fully understands the implications, and they require additional resources to manage them effectively, according to a new study from EY Law and the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession.

The 2022 General Counsel Sustainability Study explores these issues through a survey of 1,000 General Counsel and chief legal officers from 20 countries around the world, along with more than a dozen in-depth interviews with leading General Counsel.  

The findings reveal that only 15% of General Counsel respondents believe that their business leaders truly appreciate the risks to their organizations relating to environmental issues, including climate change and carbon emissions; and just 39% feel that leaders appreciate the risks relating to social issues, including diversity, wellbeing and employee safety. In addition, the study shows that 22% of General Counsel respondents believe that the environmental goals of the organizations that they work for are well defined.

Reputational risks a rising priority; focus still on compliance

A further issue highlighted by the study is that General Counsel appear to be focused on compliance and litigation issues relating to sustainability, even though they believe that the biggest risks relate to reputation and brand. This is partly due to the fact that 77% of General Counsel respondents feel more pressure from investors and regulators than from any other parties.

When asked about the most acute risks faced by their organizations, General Counsel pointed to worries about losing customers or brand damage resulting from poor labor or environmental practices (77%); and were much less concerned about barriers to investment (60%) or compliance with new regulations (59%).

Challenged by ambiguity

The study also examined the various challenges law departments are facing. By far the biggest challenge on the minds of respondents is managing risks where they lack clear guidance from regulators. Ninety-two percent of law departments who took part in the study said that they face challenges creating policies to tackle social issues, where there are no specific regulations; and 90% made the same point in relation to environmental issues.

Rising workloads, limited resources

As the range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks expands, and as businesses broaden their focus to deal with these, almost all General Counsel respondents (99%) expect a sharp increase in volumes of work, but they also harbor concerns about how to manage this anticipated rise. Ninety-six percent say that their legal departments require additional expertise to manage sustainability issues; and 94% state that they do not have the funds they need to manage their organization’s sustainability issues.

The study examines how law departments plan to manage these rising workloads. It shows that 20% intend to follow an “insourcing” approach, which focuses on hiring new people or re-allocating existing talent. A further 46% intend to pursue an “insource and optimize” strategy, which combines hiring and re-allocating with improved technology; and 34% are looking at “mixed sourcing,” which blends internal resources with support from alternative legal service providers. 

Collaboration on the rise

There are nevertheless clear signs that organizations are taking steps to strengthen their ability to handle ESG risks, and one key measure is the extent to which law departments are working with other business areas. The study reveals that 61% of law departments plan to increase collaboration with other parts of the business, including finance, HR and operations, over the next three years.

Commenting on the findings of the study, Charalambos Prountzos, EY Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe & Central Asia (CESA) Law Leader and Managing Partner at Prountzos & Prountzos LLC | EY Law, said: “ESG issues are now at the core of corporations’ agendas. In this new landscape, law departments have a key role to play, as they have a valuable mix of relevant skills and are in close contact with all the business areas that need to be involved in decision making on these issues. They will, therefore, need to focus more on sustainability issues, approaching them from a compliance perspective as well as with regard to reputational and brand risks. At the same time, the regulatory environment will have to become more precise, so that the proper policies can be adopted.” 

To learn more about the 2022 General Counsel Sustainability Study, visit


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