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Petra Zijp’s term as one of NautaDutilh’s managing partners ends in 2022 after a 5-year run. She joined the firm over 25 years ago straight out of university, and currently co-heads the Capital Markets practice together with Antonia Netiv. Petra finds it important to always be open to other perspectives, for instance through her active involvement in the International Bar Association’s law firm management committee. And she takes the time to coach mentees from other law firms. “That has been incredible,” she says. “These talented young women tell me it’s useful for them, but it brings me tons of energy.”

The role of lawyers and law firms in society has been a common thread throughout Petra’s career. “I’m a firm believer that we have a duty towards society,” she says. She is not alone at NautaDutilh in this belief. She says she also sees among her colleagues “an intrinsic wish to look at our role in society. The role of our clients is changing, to not just be profitable as a company but to contribute to a better world – and we need to participate, too.”

Since Petra, Jaap Jan Trommel, and Chris Warner began as the firm’s board in 2017, the importance of ESG has only grown. Client expectations in this field evolved with it. “We’ve really witnessed a shift,” says Petra. “General counsels used to have no budget to spend on ESG. Many also tended to think it wasn’t for them. ESG had not much to do with litigation or contracts, or at least so they thought, and there were no reporting standards or requirements. Now, when we’re talking to our clients, ESG is really top of mind for boards and legal counsels. General counsels realise they have a crucial role to play in their company’s ESG strategy. They are reaching out to us instead of the other way round.”

It’s not only the firm’s clients whose expectations have changed. CSR is today a driver in the firm’s reputation as an employer. “Nowadays, if you’re not authentic as a firm, or as a leader, talent will walk away. Our young professionals are not afraid to speak their minds. And they want to know what we do to take our responsibility in society.”

So what do clients, employees, and society at large expect from law firms today in the fields of CSR and ESG? Looking back, which choices by NautaDutilh’s board in the past five years were key to steering the firm in an ever-changing ecosystem? And, looking ahead, what is expected from the firm’s leadership to ensure the firm is fit for the future?

Great expectations
Tackling the climate crisis is the most pressing issue of our time, which makes the limiting of global emissions a shared responsibility for all industries and sectors. “Such a complex, interlinked challenge shows the importance of staying connected,” says Petra. “We are all on a journey – as businesses and individuals. Different industries are at different stages, and applicable rules and regulations may differ. Yet many of us are travelling in the same direction: a low-carbon future. We have to improve, and we can learn from each other.”

Law firms’ greatest potential for impact is through client work. “That includes advising on responsible business conduct or, within our Capital Markets team, on sustainability-linked notes or green bond issuances,” Petra says. “Climate litigation is another clear example of course.” But there’s more. “Our Energy & Natural Resources team traditionally works for all major oil & gas companies, and the connection we have through these long-standing relationships means we have a very strong base
to explore new, uncharted territories together, such as green hydrogen projects and the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. And I think that’s where we excel, as a firm.”

‘I strongly believe that if you’re kind – kind to your clients, kind to your employees, kind as a partner – it makes all the difference’


The investments NautaDutilh makes underline its commitment to ESG. “We give partners the time to really focus on the development of new, sustainable initiatives,” says Petra. “And we’re hiring lawyers with extensive ESG experience to reinforce our multidisciplinary Sustainable Business & Climate Change team.” This is something that Petra says really came together in 2021. The broad range of legal expertise now represented on the team, Petra notes, “mirrors the interlinked nature of how ESG impacts our clients.”

It’s important that a firm with a strong ESG practice also strives to make its own operations more sustainable, says Petra. Something that clients increasingly expect. “Five years ago, clients occasionally asked us to provide ESG credentials; today, it’s much more common. Our clients are making their supply chains more sustainable, and as their lawyers, we’re part of that. It certainly helps us to understand how complex it can be to collect and report the relevant data.”

The demographics of businesses are changing, too. At NautaDutilh, the Millennial and Gen Z generations comprised about a third of employees in 2017 – and are now nearing 40 percent. The challenges and opportunities that come with intergenerational diversity have been an area of focus for NautaDutilh’s board. “We initiated a Young Professionals Board (YPB), which provides our Gen Z and Millennial legal professionals and business support professionals with a voice.” They add new perspectives on a range of topics, from the firm’s commercial strategy to ESG. “‘Listening’ is one of our strategic imperatives, and we’ve learned a lot from the YPB,” Petra says. “Their advice comes solicited and unsolicited, which is good. Because the idea you don’t have comes from the voice you haven’t heard.”

Key choices
It’s an elusive thing, company culture. Nevertheless, clients and alumni remarkably often note the same thing: People at NautaDutilh are “simply a pleasure to work with.” It’s also what makes Petra, as she puts it, “a lifer at NautaDutilh.” The feedback means a lot to her. “I strongly believe that if you’re kind – kind to your clients, kind to your employees, kind as a partner – it makes all the difference.” The board has made kindness and connection a priority. “To tap into the potential power of the collective, you need to strengthen ties. Between colleagues and teams, between offices – no more silos.” One of the ways the board chose to bolster such connections was to initiate an annual firm-wide event in 2018. “That year, we focused on delivering an excellent client experience. And in 2019, we set out to increase ESG awareness by making sustainability the central theme.”

The pandemic, and working remotely, changed the dynamic. “We were all in the same storm, but in very different boats.” Regardless of particular circumstances, Petra says, “I am very proud of the resilience everyone showed. Our priority throughout the lockdowns was everyone’s vitality and mental well-being.” The firm quickly offered online coaching and access to psychologists, and has continued this practice. Petra herself took up cold water swimming to help her restore after increasingly long hours spent behind a screen.“I always was a swimmer. Growing up, I was in the pool at 6 three mornings a week.” Working as a lawyer is not that different from top sport, says Petra. “You need to have stamina, to be disciplined.” This is where kindness also comes in, she adds. “Our jobs can be demanding. As a leader, you need to be there for your team. It’s about not being afraid to show your vulnerability, to simply be human, to make that connection. As a board, this was what we emphasised during Covid: Please stay connected.”

The pandemic was also an accelerator in many respects. “Take air travel, a major contributor  to our carbon footprint,” says Petra. “We’ve now all experienced first-hand the many alternatives to hopping on a plane. So we are now finalising a more sustainable air travel policy, also with input from the YPB and the Works Council.” Under the new policy, train will be the default option for travel within Europe. “In the grand scheme of things, this is perhaps a drop in the ocean. But as a swimmer, I know that small ripples can eventually make big waves.”

Leadership in the roaring twenties
If the pandemic showed anything, it’s that global communities are interdependent and mutually vulnerable. “A very challenging start to a new decade, for all of us”, says Petra. 

In these roaring twenties, what does it take to be a law firm leader? It’s as easy as it is complicated, says Petra. “Be authentic.” Find what resonates with you, and lead from who you are as a person. “That helps you stay the course when things get complicated. And stay connected. By hearing what others feel and think, you get to elevate your ideas and sharpen your strategy.”

What does Petra look forward to once her term ends? “Thanks to our Capital Markets team, I was lucky enough to stay involved in client work throughout my term as Managing Partner. I will enjoy working more with our talented junior lawyers and see them develop into excellent professionals. And I will explore how to spend my Impact Days.”

She refers to a core element of the firm’s new Impact Programme. “It was a dream of mine to increase the positive impact we can have in our communities”, says Petra. “The Impact Programme is an umbrella for our CSR activities, and everyone at NautaDutilh has four Impact Days to spend on volunteering. It encourages us to use our time and talents to effect positive change in the lives of others,” says Petra.

Petra is proud of how the firm evolved in the past five years. “We have a great CSR Committee,
Pro Bono Committee, Green Committees. We published our second CSR Report, launched our Impact Programme. We hired a CSR Specialist and are hiring a specialist on Inclusion & Diversity. And we have a new generation of partners and heads of staff who understand the importance of leadership in these areas,” Petra says. “CSR is now so engrained; this is not going to stop because I’m stepping down.”

Also read:

Download the full CSR report here

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