Lawyers, CSR and the “debilitating context”

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March 09, 2015

Lawyers are failing to see the bigger picture when it comes to business and human rights, argues Ruby Sandhu.


I recently had the opportunity to provide a workshop to students at the University of Cambridge, as part of my work as a lawyer in Business and Human Rights and in my role as Vice Chair of the Solicitors International Human Rights Group.

Here were some of the youngest and brightest, courted by top law firms and chambers, to whom I had the privilege of imparting more my ‘felt experience’ than knowledge in this area of law.

During the presentation there was no doubt of the students’ smartness and intelligence. However, this was at the expense of something which I feel that not only one of our top academic institutions, but our education system and society, deeply lacks – that is, the appropriate “context”. The lack of which is the cause of the current state of the planet, and what I now refer to as the “debilitating context” within which we are currently operating.

The appropriate context for us has to be one that factors in the planet and its ecosystem. Without this, our actions will be premised on short termism and a failure to understand our part in a global whole. Any education system that fails to address this fact may well be smart and intelligent, but will continue to be devoid of wisdom.

Lawyers as CSR advisors

Today, globalisation and resource demands make it all the more important to embed the appropriate context. Investors and companies alike must assist in nation-building and addressing governance gaps around the world, a process which includes the field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and emerging norms such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).  Along with this is it really wise to take products and processes that are first world to emerging or frontier markets where the physiology and systems do not benefit from such a transplant.

Companies wield an extraordinary amount of power. Professionals, including lawyers, need to provide advice to clients beyond just compliance and risk management processes. As part of a profession premised on ethics, our advice must encompass the issues of human rights, societal impacts and the leverage a company can use to institute positive change, including communication through its brand, economic leverage and technical expertise. Within a revised context companies can thus support the “right thing to do”.

No one individual or company in this day and age would admit to deliberately disrespecting human rights. However, in this age of planned obsolescence, competitive advantage and zero hour contracts, a heavy emphasis is placed on taking advantage of new markets and natural resources where governance gaps and lack of infrastructure provide opportunities to reduce costs. At worst, this becomes a race to the bottom as companies seek new host states that allow them to undercut the competition.

Although there are a multitude of CSR professionals, lawyers need to be able to provide advice on strategic CSR and within the appropriate context. We must understand the opportunities for companies to assist in building anti-corruption infrastructure in developing and frontier markets.

Developments in the legal sector

Pioneering work has been undertaken by The Law Society of England & Wales, through  the Business and Human Rights Advisory Group (BHRAG) (of which I was a member), on how to apply the UN Guiding Principles to the legal sector. In March 2014, BHRAG published its recommendations for the Law Society, including developing training for law firms, sharing best practice, encouraging members to adopt human rights policies, and raising awareness of the UNGPs.

As practitioners, it is important that we look to implement the recommendations. This will ensure that we practice what we preach with regards to the advice that we provide to clients. More importantly, we will start to educate ourselves on the debilitating context within which we are operating.

This is a first step. However, much work is required if we are to really factor in climate crisis and planetary boundaries, stress  and resource depletion, and the ensuing impact this will have on human rights.


My work has now taken me to run my own consultancy RS Collaboration, which through strategic collaborations provides bespoke workshops and advice for clients. As a lawyer and Partner of The Brooke Consultancy LLP I advise clients on creating the company structures to best serve the emerging norms on the corporate duty to respect and for Corporates to go beyond just philanthropy and charity.  The premise is to provide clients with advice – “business in the round” – instead of just operating from a silo of expertise.

The author can be contacted on