‘His lifetime of work will never be forgotten’ – a tribute to Professor Paul Watchman

Pioneering sustainable finance lawyer Paul Watchman, who led the landmark 2005 UN initiative which devised a legal framework for ESG investing, has sadly died. His friend and fellow ESG pioneer Paul Clements-Hunt pays tribute to Watchman and his raft of achievements.

Long before his October 2005 Freshfields Report for the United Nations, before his driving advocacy for financially material and fiduciary aligned ESG, the window into the late Professor Paul Quayle Watchman’s soul was crystal clear.

Professor Paul Watchman

Universally recognised as one of the world’s foremost Climate Change, ESG, Business and Human Rights and Sustainable Finance lawyers, Paul Watchman led the Freshfields team and was the principal author and project head of the UN report on fiduciary duties, known as The Freshfields Report, which provides the legal foundation for ESG investment.

He has had a long association with the United Nations and the Principles of Responsible Investment (UN PRI) and for almost 20 years has acted as Special Legal Counsel and Special Advisor to the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI).

Most recently, he held the role of Global Head of Climate Change and ESG Transition at  Hong Kong-based law firm Ben McQuhae & Co.

“We are beyond sad to share that Professor Paul Watchman has passed away,” said Ben McQuhae & Co.

“A pioneer in law and ESG, Paul was a uniquely gifted and generous person. We will always remember the energy he brought to our firm and his absolute belief in what we are trying to achieve. We hope that by continuing our work we can contribute to his legacy. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and people who knew him best. An impossible act to follow.”

Homelessness, rotten landlords and support for victims of domestic violence were an abiding passion for Paul, from his time as a young academic lawyer in his beloved Glasgow of the 1970s. This was a man who held social justice, equality, environmental protection and speaking truth to power at the core of his being.

Now, the wickedly funny Watchman, the best raconteur I have ever met, was the first to admit that over a long and illustrious career as a lawyer, with Brodies LLP in Scotland and then a range of powerhouse Magic Circle and other high-end law firms, he’d acted on both sides of the sustainability coin. Mining, extractives, fossil fuels, big old brown industries, all had been clients and he knew the game from all sides.

The grittiest issues of social justice and environmental destruction were front and centre of his brilliant legal mind. That knowledge and vast experience is what made him so powerful and credible as a supporter for UNEP Finance Initiative’s work. Work that, between 2003 to 2006, led to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, as it was known when the late UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, launched it on 27 April 2006, at the New York Stock Exchange.

Clearly, Paul’s earliest work around social justice in various forms, leading into a 1980s focus on housing issues, notably the Rent Act, and close work with a range of industries, informed his subsequent relentless work on fiduciary duties and ESG.

Without Paul’s Freshfields Report, a 150-page legal interpretation exploring ESG in the context of fiduciary law in the nine major capital markets, the PRI would have lacked the legal credibility to take off and to become what it is today – backed by 5,300 global institutional investors and investment chain service providers.

Are the PRI and ESG perfect? No. But they are the strongest of signals to the market and 17 years after launch have changed the investing conversation. Watchman knew the legal fulcrum of financial materiality and challenging fiduciary duties had to align with what existing laws actually said not how the mainstream investment world often misinterpreted them, this was key. The UK Law Commission in 2011 validated Paul’s firmly held belief.

A few months before his tragic early passing last Sunday, Paul was deep into a late draft of his book exploring the 1915 rent strikes in Glasgow. The plan was for the nearly finished draft to arch forward a century from World War I to the present-day trials of the need for a fit and proper rental market.

This text is not just an academic legal work but brought to life, with rich colour, humour and brutal reality, the lives of the working women of Glasgow who confronted powerful landlords while many of their husbands were fighting in the trenches. The rent strike saw the first-ever Rent Restrictions Act entered on the statue books. Paul and I mused how the powerful story should be turned into a feature film – films, and his vast knowledge of them, were another abiding Watchman passion.

How the Glaswegian women confronted the powerful and rich, as war raged, has been mirrored by Paul as he applied his amazing legal mind and deep empathy to call out the global investment, financial, industrial and regulatory actors, which have failed to match their sustainability words with deeds. Professor Watchman’s work is, without doubt, what others can now build on in coming decades.

My first meeting with Paul was in London. It was 7 July 2005 as we sat, early in the morning in his Fleet Street office at law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, discussing what would become his report. Unbeknownst to us was that as we spoke, tragically 56 people were to lose their lives on that day or subsequently as four suicide bombers desecrated the city. This was a day never to be forgotten for all the very worst of reasons.

Paul Watchman’s lifetime of work will never be forgotten for all the right reasons as we strive to transform 250 years of extractive capitalism into a regenerative model yielding the sustainable world this great man believed in.

Paul Clements-Hunt is former Head of UNEP Finance Initiative (2000-2012), the Founder/CEO of The Blended Capital Group, and a Director of Mishcon Purpose at Mishcon de Reya LLP.

Share this