Attorney April Hamlin, a partner at Ballard Spahr in Minneapolis and co-leader of the national law firm's new environment, social and governance (ESG) group, expects concerns about how companies treat employees, customers and the planet will increasingly determine how they do business.
Surging ESG-driven investing is drawing greater regulator scrutiny, with Nasdaq recently proposing new board diversity disclosure requirements, said Hamlin, a securities attorney who has two decades of experience counseling corporate boards and executives of public companies in the Twin Cities and across the country.
Hamlin and others in different practice areas at the firm — which has 15 offices and more than 650 lawyers — have long been advising clients on sustainability, workforce composition, management diversity, labor standards and pay equity among other issues that now fall under the ESG umbrella.
Just as online presence, once an afterthought, has become ubiquitous, the focus on how companies behave and whether it is consistent with what consumers, employees and investors expect will grow more widespread, Hamlin said.
"It's going to be more of a multi-headed constituency model where pursuing the last penny for shareholders is not necessarily the goal," Hamlin said. "You're going to start to see everybody having an ESG program. That's what you're going to see in five years, just like every company now has a website."
Emerging growth and startup companies in cities where Ballard Spahr has offices are driving the ESG focus, Hamlin said. "Startups, younger companies get this as kind of an ethos thing," Hamlin said. "It's helping them benchmark where they're at vs. their peers to compete for talent, to compete for business and to compete for customers."
Hamlin, who has a law degree from what is now Mitchell Hamline School of Law, co-leads the ESG Working Group with attorney Kahlil Williams in the firm's Philadelphia office.
Q: How has interest in ESG progressed during your practice?
A: It started 15 years ago at least when you talk about sustainable investing and socially conscious investing. Then environmentalism and sustainability programs and now leading up to diversity and inclusion as a component of ESG. The treatment of whistleblowers is another component.
Those things are all jelling together as a unified body of how to think about, evaluate and for consumers [to] make buying decisions.
Q: What are your responsibilities in helping to lead Ballard's ESG Group?
A: Our primary responsibilities are to make sure that we're sharing within the firm all of the learning on this topic and the advice we've been giving to clients. Making sure clients understand that we have these capabilities. Some clients that are very up on this topic want help seeing around corners to know what is the next trend in ESG and how does their company stack up. For a big chunk of folks in the middle, it's trying to do something that's appropriate for their company and for what they do.
Q: Are any of the emerging growth companies and startups among your clients that have made ESG central to their business located in the Twin Cities?
A: Plenty of them are. It's a big thing here in the Twin Cities. It's cutting across all facets of ESG. Some clients' thing is ag tech where they're coming up with new ways to grow food more efficiently, with greater ability to be transported and using less water and less chemicals.
I have others who are more socially focused. One client is focused on artist development and having arts immersion and arts in the community. Folks in the fintech space, med-tech, those all have their won takes on ESG.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is email@example.com.