Law firms and consultancies should be cautiously brave in navigating “the war on woke capitalism”

A group of Republican senators recently wrote to the managing partners of 51 major law firms, pledging to “scrutinize the institutionalised antitrust violations being committed in the name of ESG.”  

This opened a new front in the campaign against “woke capitalism”. Hitherto, Republicans focused on corporates and financial institutions with ESG commitments. This has brought law firms into focus as part of a “collusive effort” to “reshape society in ways that Americans would never endorse at the ballot box.” And as enablers of ESG action globally, major consultancies should expect to come in for scrutiny, particularly as the 2024 US presidential election gains momentum.

There is much at stake in this pressure-cooker of polarised views when it comes to reputation. What’s more, there are no easy answers, so it is worth taking stock of both positions.

Critics in ‘Red states’ think companies and pension funds pursuing ESG strategies are sacrificing financial returns, thereby reneging on fiduciary duties. They see the US transition away from fossil fuels as driving up energy prices and “empowering America’s adversaries abroad”. From Texas to Florida, legislation is being used to block state pension funds considering ESG factors in decision making.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the EU has ambitious ESG regulations: Sustainable Financial Disclosure Regulations, Green Taxonomy and the emerging Social Taxonomy. The UK has set a similar course. Whilst there are pockets of scepticism, and the broad picture evolves as policy matures, the trend is one of greater regulation to ensure firms internalise costs traditionally imposed on society.

This presents a challenge for global professional services firms, for whom providing ESG advice has become a key commercial driver. Swathes of clients have concluded that operating sustainably is accreditive to long-term shareholder value and they need professional help to transform. Sustainable practice is backed by colleagues and attracts recruits. Many go further and consider ESG as core to their purpose because it creates value holistically – financial, environmental and social.

But the politics of all this presents competing incentives in different markets, each carrying different reputational risks. Companies cannot, it would seem, please all the people all of the time. In the US, professional services firms will be rightly wary of ‘poking the GOP elephant’ but at the same time, eager to burnish ESG credentials in Europe. The task is to somehow present a unified view globally, in an age where information is without borders.

In response, professional services firms committed to ESG should be cautiously brave:

Brave in defending their core values and purpose and not being tempted into green-hushing (pursuing sustainable goals but keeping them quiet to avoid scrutiny). Despite the backlash, the views of clients and colleagues remain consistently supportive of ESG. Global firms understand this; they have thought deeply about the issues already and their positions and know that their policies cannot simply be scrubbed out or downplayed.

Cautious in navigating polarised debates without carelessly becoming a lightning rod for those seeking to make political capital. Part of that is about constantly challenging yourself and your strategy. For firms that alighted on their strategies a few years ago, now is the time to revisit them to ensure that they still set out a compelling vision and stand up to scrutiny.

We have experience of helping businesses to navigate and manage these dynamics in the investment space and believe that the companies best equipped to do this are those who stay close to and truly understand the concerns of their stakeholders. This will help inform a sharp and compelling business case behind why ESG is central to, rather than in conflict with, fiduciary duties over the long term.

Wherever this goes over the next year, it is clear that reputation will continue to be shaped by how companies navigate a complex web of economic and moral questions, underpinned by differing values and interpretations of the world around us. This is no easy feat and whilst ESG may be getting more uncomfortable, the firms that are cautiously brave and stick to their principles will eventually be rewarded by the stakeholders who count.