Amy Lehr, a lawyer at Foley Hoag LLP, is part of the firm’s unique Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practice. In this role, she provides advice to major multinational corporations, international financial institutions, and governments on best practices with regard to human rights, labor rights, and indigenous rights issues, as well as on stakeholder relations. Maura Smyles, Kenan’s Pathways of Change intern placed at Foley Hoag, conducted this interview with Amy in her office in Washington DC.
Q: Where did you grow up and what were your early years like?
A: I grew up in a college town in Oklahoma, and my dad was a professor, so I grew up around lots of professors’ kids and had a very charmed childhood.
Q: How did you become interested in law and specifically business and human rights? Did you work on other issues before focusing on business and human rights?
A: I worked in international development, but I specifically worked in Burma, and that’s how I became interested in the area of business and human rights. When I was in law school I worked on human rights generally for a while, but I really had this specific interest in business and human rights, which of course at the time wasn’t a field. But I managed to get a job at the UN working on those issues with Professor Ruggie when he was developing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Those were really the first global standards in the space, so they helped the field coalesce and have some common vocabulary and become more of a community.
Q: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your current work?
A: Well, the most rewarding part is that if you do your job well, then it actually makes a difference in the lives of communities and workers. Also, it’s constantly evolving so the kinds of issues that I’m working on change quite frequently, so I don’t get bored. And usually, solving whatever the problem is is not just a technical fix. It’s often also political in nature, and so that keeps it really interesting. I also really like getting to engage with different types of people, so I work with companies, but I also talk to NGOs frequently, people in the government, people from different cultures, and I really enjoy that.
One of the challenges is when there are problems without easy solutions. Some of them are systemic problems, and so you can propose partial fixes but the big fixes require a lot of different actors working together to change aspects of how, for example, global supply chains work or how a government deals with rule of law. These are not easy issues to address. They’re very important and very interesting, but very challenging.
Q: In what ways has your work at Foley changed your views about business and human rights?
A: I think what you learn over time when you’re in this field, whether you’re at a law firm or somewhere else, is that a lot of issues are not black and white. Companies may end up, for example, in a situation that looks pretty bad, but it doesn’t mean they wanted to be there or were trying to be there. They may in fact be trying to not be there, and trying very hard, but it may not be an immediate fix. So, I think my appreciation of the complexity of the problems has really grown, and that’s also made me believe that these issues really need cross-sectoral solutions.
Q: What advice do you have for students who want to work in the area of business and human rights?
A: I think an understanding of different cultures is quite helpful. That might mean studying abroad, or otherwise just trying to have on the ground experience as to why something like child labor might exist in a country and why it might be considered culturally acceptable in that country, even though we would never see it that way. This understanding and experience allows you to work on root causes of problems.
I also think working across sectors is helpful. I think your value in the space is greater if you’ve maybe worked for the government and for an NGO, or for a business and for an NGO. Being able to really understand different perspectives is incredibly valuable.