How the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam strengthens environmental awareness among law students
I am a lawyer by training, working with law and sustainability for the past 12 years. Currently, I am the coordinator of the Master International Business Law: Climate Change & Sustainability and I am an assistant professor of Corporate Social Responsibility and the Circular Economy LAB. Climate change is increasingly becoming part of legal practice. Cases such as the Urgenda case, in which the Dutch Government was ordered by a Court of First Instance to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% of 1990 levels by 2020, have contributed to show that governments may be held accountable for environmental damage. Climate Change is fundamentally different from other social challenges,not only for the unprecedented scale but also for the intergenerational impact. The legal implications of climate change are relevant to different legal disciplines, such as energy law, tort law and corporate law. Universities have a key role in educating students and preparing them to address the complexity of this topic.
Alexandra Duarte Correia
Miss Alexandra Duarte Correia, you are currently the programme coordinator for International Law on Climate Change and Sustainability – could you give us an insight on what the programme offers?
This is a pioneer Master programme in International Business law with a specialization in Climate Change & Sustainability. It is taught in English. It is a dynamic and unique programme specially designed to educate lawyers, it has the "civiel effect" and this means that combined with the right prior education, it provides access to professionals in the Dutch judiciary (such as, attorney or judge). The first part of the programme has a focus on the traditional legal disciplines, such as Corporate Law, Contract Law and Liability Law; in the second part, it will bring disciplines with a more sustainable focus, such as Energy and Climate Governance and Climate Change Liability.) We have developed partnerships with leading law firms, companies, financial institutions and NGO's, we have a worldwide network in the field of law and climate change & sustainability. We have top business professionals as guest lecturers, real business cases and visits to potential employers, such as law firms.
Since this is a very specific niche of law, why did VU Amsterdam decided to launch this programme?
We developed this programme in response to the growing demand for sustainability professionals in different areas, including law. We also understand the scale of the threat that climate change present to humanity and we as academics have a key role to play just as the legal profession and the corporate sector.
Companies ask themselves: how do we understand these new regulatory risks and opportunities, and, are our legal teams and advisors equipped with the right information to respond?
So increasingly, lawyers are confronted with some form of sustainability responsibility in their positions for which they need formal education. This is where we can help, we offer a pioneer Master programme that combines business law with climate change & sustainability.
Climate change and sustainability are global issues. In your opinion – what role do lawyers, and most importantly law students play in combating its effects?
The complexity of climate change and the pathways for transitioning to a circular economy has shown that many different disciplines and expertise must be coordinated. Lawyers are increasingly required to advise their clients on issues, such as, the impact of new regulations, climate litigation and innovation. Circularity calls for specialized knowledge but also for a new way of thinking.
Lawyers are instrumental for assisting businesses in the transition to a circular economy, to help them deal with environmental, social and governance risk management and with complying with increasing regulation. We see law students very engaged and interested in understanding the complexities of the link between the law, climate change and business. They constructively want to be part of the solution and want to make an impact on society. Therefore, students increasingly look for a specialized education that will enable them to pursue a career in the field of law, climate change & sustainability.
A danger foreseen is a danger avoided? Is climate change to in your opinion a danger to be avoided by business law?
Many times yes; predicting a danger may help you to avoid it. However, climate change is a different story. It is perhaps the biggest challenge that humanity has ever faced. In this case the dangers of climate change are already there and are already felt in many parts of the world, such as the Philippines, Africa and Antarctica. There is much to be done if we want to avoid these dangers to grow bigger and deeper. The law has certainly, in my opinion, a role to play. Regulation may contribute to fight climate change and minimize its effects. However, while ideally regulation is expected to protect certain interests, such as the environment or public health, and at the same time allow technological innovation and industrial development, finding this balance is a challenge.
International business in a roaring world between innovation and profit issues? How does sustainability fits in there?
In my opinion the answer lays with the principles of the circular economy. One of the most challenging and complex issues facing our global economy is how to move from the unsustainable "business as usual" to one that is circular and adequate for society, the environment and the economy. Businesses that do not engage with the transition to a sustainable business model will lack a competitive advantage. The transition to a circular economy is far reaching; it entails change at all levels of society. Sustainability and innovation are expected to be at the core of business transformation. Innovation is key for addressing this transition and the law is key to facilitate innovation and enable the creation of new opportunities for businesses to thrive.
Informations about VU and the programs
You were talking about a new generation of lawyers, who are in a combined field of law and sustainability. Is this a new generation gap inside the legal world? What can this Master programme help for?
Yes. Although there are lawyers with expertise in the combined field of law, climate change & sustainability, there is still a great knowledge gap in this field. Our Master is designed to fill-in this gap of knowledge and prepare lawyers that have the unique skills to support the creation of sustainable business models and to support the process of creating shared-value. Lawyers that understand how sustainability connects with the bigger picture and can identify sustainable business opportunities.
Teaching a wide range of knowledge on the one hand is nice to have. But how do you guarantee deep and special knowledge on the other hand?
The quality of our programme lays in the quality of our top academic staff and top guest lecturers. We offer a wide range of knowledge to educate all-round lawyers and a specialized combination of legal knowledge with climate change & sustainability. Courses such as, Energy and Climate Governance, Climate Change Liability and Corporate Social Responsibility are given by experts in their field which guarantees the specialized academic quality of programme. Through the guest lectures students will learn an up-to-date state of the art of practice in the fields of law, business and climate change & sustainability, including the major stakeholders in this field. This will contribute to a better understanding of the theory behind practice.
Miss Duarte Correia, in your past you worked in many high demanded positions, particularly at the Developing Bank of the Netherlands at the sustainability development team. Was this the final step for you before you decided to go to the university – why?
FMO is one of those great organizations to work for, they have exceptional professionals and they are fully committed to responsible investment and to contribute to improving the lives of many people. Working in such an organization was an inspiration for me and contributed to my decision of doing a PhD in sustainability reporting in capital markets. I decided to work in academia to specialize in the field of international company law and sustainability.
„So increasingly, lawyers are confronted with some form of sustainability responsibility in their positions for which they need formal education.“
What are the key issues of the programme and why is it in your opinion so different from other programmes world wide, especially in Europe?
This Master programme offers a unique and specialized knowledge in law and climate change & sustainability. We offer a Master programme that enables students to have a meaningful impact on society. Our top academics and guest lecturers will teach how students can look at such a complex challenge as climate change through a legal lens. Business, sustainability and the law go hand in hand. The corporate sector is increasingly understanding that cannot be successful by ignoring climate change & sustainability; climate change & sustainability advocates also increasingly understand the need to have business knowledge if they want to have a meaningful impact on society; and the law is intrinsically the key for protecting, for example, the environment and human health but also to allow for innovation and the creation of the new business opportunities.
A golden key can open any door. And a good knowledge is the foundation to enable changes and careers as a lawyer. But what’s about soft skills? Which ones can a student learn at Vrije?
This Master programme is holistic and prepares the students to become responsible lawyers and to have an impact on society. It combines legal academic excellence with the "law in action" method. Traditionally, law is taught from the perspective of a specific legal discipline. An alternative way of teaching law is by focusing, not on the law as such, but on a specific societal problem. We then look at what the law has to offer in the process of finding a solution to that specific problem. This method stimulates collaborative learning. The interdisciplinary approach of the programme also stimulates curiosity, teamwork and creativity.
May we get some more concrete information? How does this programme help lawyers to have better career opportunities?
Given the current context we are living, of growing climate litigation, increasing regulation requiring companies to disclose how they are managing their environmental, social and governance risks, increasing global commitments such as, the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we can only expect a growing demand of lawyers with a specialized knowledge of business law and climate change & sustainability. The students graduating in our master programme will be equipped with this exact knowledge in demand. We therefore expect, that this Master will be able to position students in the right direction to pursue a great career.
Sustainability is a very controversial topic and in terms of different opinions, the way to change the business society will become much harder. Did you have also some lows at the beginning by supporting this Master programme?
The high bandwidth of this programme needs a high quality of lectures, especially guest lectures. How can you guarantee that these, given by business professionals, don’t influence the students too much in relation to open-minded dealing with topics like climate change?
We have thoroughly selected top business professionals to be guest lecturers in our programme. They were selected for their particular expertise and the exclusive added value they can bring into the classroom. Given the high quality of our guest lecturers, which are all open-minded themselves, we can only expect their influence to be positive and that the students will be able to learn from the best academic and business professionals.
Did you have a negative key experience in your past, which was for you the beginning of working on sustainability within business law?
No, luckily not.
Which advice would you give students on the way who are looking more for prestige of universities than topics?
I always advise students to study a topic that they like, or even better, a topic that they love. This is the most important. Study and later work in a field that you absolutely love!
I have lived and worked in 6 different countries, I have worked in the private sector (law firm), for the Portuguese Government, the European Commission and in a financial institution. I am specialized in company law and sustainability. This is the synergy of knowledge and the professional experience that I bring to my courses of corporate social responsibility and the circular economy LAB. This is a unique LL.M especially designed to empower law students with the instrumental combination of law and sustainability knowledge and skills to tackle critical global challenges and give them a competitive advantage to enter the job market.