In our blog series, ‘Behind the loupe’, we go behind the scenes of our international law firm to uncover the driving forces behind our success – from the lawyers, to our leadership team, to HR, finance, business development and more. Our people, based across our global locations, including offices in Europe, Asia, North America, and the Middle East, have a vast number of unique roles that all play a part in bringing Gowling WLG to life.
Throughout this series, we’ll explore the details of their roles, what it’s like to work with us and an insight into their lives. In this blog, we meet Fiona Nicholls, our head of sustainability and ESG strategy.
What is your role at Gowling WLG?
My role is multi-faceted and revolves around environmental social and governance (ESG) themes including the internal ESG Strategy, our PLANET+ strategy focusing on six key environmental goals, quality assurance certifications and internal assurance – there’s a lot to do! Reporting to General Counsel, and working across all departments, there are also many ways to effect change.
I am here to manage risk, enable creative positive change for the planet and our people and make the most of opportunities. It involves constantly looking for ways to improve. I’m proud to be part of a business not afraid to take on difficult challenges too. For example, in 2017 we adopted a zero carbon by 2030 goal, ahead of the field. Getting there, like most difficult things, revolves around people willing to be brave and seeing beyond the here and now, and that’s where we are right now.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There is no such thing, which is one of the great things about this varied role and working here.
Recently, my main focus has been on preparing and implementing our new internal ESG Strategy. It is gluing together the enormous progress already made by talented colleagues from across the business and encompasses more than 25 themes, from culture, climate risk, and inclusion to disclosure, compliance and data protection. In practice, this means listening and learning, preparing guidance, evolving processes, meeting legal requirements and responding to questions from all corners of the business.
There are new environmental objectives in place to deliver too, to accelerate our PLANET+ Commitment (environmental and energy policy) and carbon plan. Delivering on them requires technical investigation, engagement with our PLANET+ ambassadors (including partners), regular communications and eyes on the horizon among other things.
Audits, key to assurance and a component of the G in ESG, also play a big role in the day. Whether it’s inputting into internal audit planning, contributing to audit questionnaires, advising on client audit requests or reviewing draft reports, there is much to do. My role takes me away from the fieldwork these days but I still love getting involved. As an auditor, you get to be investigator, consultant, helper and improvement catalyst all in one, and it’s not just about finance. We also pride ourselves on being independent, supportive, objective and friendly but to evidence that you will need to ask an auditee!
It’s a real privilege (and fun) to lead a small but perfectly formed team of talented sustainability and assurance professionals. Being in a highly regulated industry, and with agendas moving fast, things can be quite serious at times. Catch ups and collaboration sessions, including a ‘Happy Friday’ slot, are vital to morale and innovation. A good sense of humour is mandatory in the GC Team, along with plenty of compliance training!
How did you get into your career?
Following a poor set of exam results, I left school at 15 and headed to college, choosing environmental science as one of my retakes. Teachers urgent to share their knowledge, introduced me to the horror of environmental disasters such as Minamata and Three Mile Island but also the beauty of nature and geography of the world, I was hooked.
Environmental and ESG roles were not at the forefront of careers advisors’ minds and, following A-Levels, I left for university and a physiology degree. A couple of good years in the pharmaceutical industry ensued before filling my backpack to travel the world. I came back humbled, with a career change firmly imprinted on my brain. Following completion of an MSc in Environmental Protection, I picked up a short-term contract with a new sustainability consultancy and never looked back.
What has been a highlight of your career so far?
There is no single highpoint, just many individual ones. Being a project manager in a cutting edge purpose-driven consultancy, establishing a business during the 2007 recession, putting solar panels on community buildings, being a school governor and non-Executive Director roles have all shaped me into a pragmatic advocate for business sustainability. They have also taught me a great deal about leadership and even more about resilience.
A new highpoint is definitely being able to share skills, learn from others and be authentic in a forward thinking law firm like Gowling WLG.
How do you step away from work?
The environment is my first passion and I love my job. This means the lines between work and personal life often get blurred. I’ve been working on a 10 year project to retrofit my house and garden for nature, health and planet, which is rewarding and exhausting in equal measure, though never dull! I also love to hike and cycle, particularly along the coast, and travelling through Europe is my new must do more.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
I’m particularly looking forward to closing the gap between internal action and legal services. Law firms, and professional services generally, represent a largely untapped opportunity to make great strides towards achieving the aims of the global Sustainable Development Goals. Being a founder signatory to the 1.5 Charter, which uniquely acknowledges the relationship between law firms, their clients and achieving no more than a 1.5oC rise in global temperatures, is a major step in the right direction. The UN Global Compact is another and being involved at the outset of both of these pioneering agencies is definitely something to get excited about.
No business or individual is perfect when it comes to sustainability but where there is an abundant openness to try harder, do more, listen and learn, there is prospect and hope. We are genuinely in this camp and it’s just of the reasons why it is a really great place to work.