Manager of ESG and Sustainability
Past positions include: associate, Lerner & Kirchner
JD University of Illinois
BS Boston College
ESG leader learns through doing at Phillips 66
On transitioning lawyers learning to think like business people… Opportunities, not just problems.
On yoga’s benefit in the workplace
On sustainability as a job function
Listen to interview:
EXJ: I think we all know Phillips 66 is kind of an iconic brand. But could you give us a quick capsule of what the company looks like today?
Maria Dunn: We’re an integrated downstream company. That means we are picking up oil and natural gas at the wellhead and we are moving it, transporting it, and making it into products that we all use every day. Some of them are products that move planes, trains, and automobiles. Others go into specialty applications, for making electronics or fabrics or fertilizers and other things that people use every single day. We also have a growing, evolving emerging energy program that’s looking at lower-carbon business opportunities.
ex judicata: In law school, did you have a sense of the direction that your career might go in? Did you start out in environmental law?
Maria Dunn: Well, in law school, I knew I liked the law, and I was very intellectually interested in it and stimulated and challenged by it. But I did not have a practicing lawyer in my family and was not familiar with all the career options, so I sought out many different experiences. After my first year, I worked at a very small firm and then worked for a couple of big law firms one summer. I also did a judicial clerkship and had a teaching assistantship to see the academic side of law and to try to get as broad an experience as possible.
As for my coursework, there was no sustainability class back then. There was an environmental course and a corporations and tax course and constitutional law, administrative law, property contracts, all of that. And so, I really took a diverse mix of courses because a lot of it interested me. And then after I graduated, I clerked for a federal judge, a trial court judge, and then did trials and civil and criminal defense at a small firm for about five years before I came in house with what was then the Phillips Petroleum Company.
ex judicata: When you when you went in-house, was that through a recruiter or were they a client of the firm so it was a natural move over?
Maria Dunn: Neither. My family was relocating to the town where Phillips Petroleum Company was based at the time, so it was just happenstance and being at the right place at the right time and reaching out. I was able to get an interview, and I said to my interviewers, ‘I have to tell you, I’m not an environmental lawyer. I don’t know oil and natural gas. And I’m not a corporate lawyer because I’ve only done really small trial matters.’ And they said, ‘Okay. Can you learn?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I can.’ So they said, ‘Well, we’ll train you.’ And that was 25 years ago.
ex judicata: And for that type of training, who would oversee it? Was it the law department or just different departments in the company?
Maria Dunn: It was on the job training. It was learning by doing. And there were senior lawyers along the way who were extremely generous with their time and expertise, helping me with contract-writing and review. I also worked with very, very smart businesspeople to capture their deals in written documents. And then outside training, whether it was CLE or going to conferences, as well reading and independent study along the way.
ex judicata: How did your shift over to the business side come about? Did you know you wanted to be on the business side after you were at the company for a while?
Maria Dunn: I really hadn’t considered it. My boss came into my office one day and said, ‘Hey, there’s someone from the business who would be interested in you leaving legal and going into their unit.’ And I had never dreamed of that. I never dreamed of not being a lawyer. At the time I did not want to leave Legal. In the years since I started Phillips Petroleum wound up merging with Conoco to become ConocoPhillips. Then in 2012, ConocoPhillips spun off Phillips 66, and I went with Phillips 66.
Thanks to the relationships I had built and the broad experience I had working in a lot of different parts of the company, I had an opportunity to step out of Legal and start the sustainability group at Phillips 66. And I took a leap of faith and said yes.
ex judicata: Could you tell us a little bit about what your responsibilities are like? What does your job entail?
Maria Dunn: Sustainability is evolving, and I would say that reflects my experience at Phillips 66. So at first when we were standing up the function at the company, we did an assessment and tried to identify the key issues of interest internally and externally and prioritize those and start working to also identify opportunities, risks and mitigation plans. Investors were at the lead of being interested in what we also call ESG [environmental, social and governance], and I’ll use that synonymously with sustainability. And especially some socially responsible investors, who cared very deeply about some of those topics and would want to engage with us and understand how as a new company we were setting up our environmental and social policies, programs and practices.
Climate has become big. We’re an energy company. And that has really, I think, pivoted the topic and conversation to lower-carbon greenhouse gases, greenhouse targets, and then disclosures along the way. In addition to investors, banks and insurance companies, and Indigenous communities where our operations are are all very interested in energy, and how we’re managing our footprint. And that impacts disclosures. And that’s evolving as we speak because while historically a lot of the reporting has been voluntary, we’re now seeing standards and regulatory requirements for ESG disclosures.
ex judicata: How do you hire for your group? Would you hire people right out of law school without any legal experience? Would you hire young associates with environmental backgrounds?
Maria Dunn: I don’t know if law school curriculum has evolved to include more sustainability and ESG-related courses. That would be very interesting to find out about. But I’m particularly interested in someone understanding the business, with a working understanding of its operations, its purpose, how it makes money, and how it can lose money. And also in someone who has thought about the types of sustainability issues that are unique to the company so they’re able to have an in-depth conversation about the opportunities and risks. Are they policy? Are they financial, are they personnel, are they environmental?
ex judicata : So if someone does not have any business background, but has been an environmental associate, let’s say for three years or so in a law firm, would you be willing to hire them?
Maria Dunn: I think three years is a little short. I mean, I think the people who are coming out of school today are awfully bright and they make a lot of connections very, very quickly. But I think it might take more like five or six years to really understand the business. And if you think about my background just as an example, I was still in the legal department when I worked in different rotations throughout the company. That gave me an understanding of the different aspects of the business. And so I think people can have deep environmental experience or deep governance and corporate law experience, or perhaps labor and employment and HR experience. All of that helps give you a better understanding of the business the client is in and can be transferable.
ex judicata: That makes sense. So I would imagine at the same time that there are environmental lawyers in the legal department who work on some of the same issues as the ESG group. What is the difference between someone doing environmental work in a law department versus what you do?
Maria Dunn: Well, environmental is part of what I do, but it’s not all of it, right, because we have the energy aspects as well. So an environmental lawyer is going to be working with the business unit and advising on operational compliance. What are the laws and regulations today and how is the business operating within those? And if there is a permit, exceedance or violation, what do they need to do with the regulatory agency regarding that? I tend to be looking at and working with the business unit on our environmental footprint and again on continuous improvement and how we can aim to improve whatever the environmental metric may be.
Maybe it’s waste, right? Maybe we want to have increased waste recycling or waste reduction goals and what can we do? How do we measure it with baseline? Where are we going? How do we perform that and do it accurately? That’s really, really important. There’s a saying that a lawyer who has him- or herself as a client is a fool. So I also try not to act like a fool. I really try not to do my own lawyering, which means that when a potential issue or problem comes up, I do go to my Legal colleagues and present it to them as a business client and get their advice and then operate within what they tell me to do.
ex judicata: It sounds like you learned a lot about balance sheets and other business basics on the job. Did you have any outside education on the business side?
Maria Dunn: I’m sure at some point I did some seminars and courses. I think that one of the things that’s really important for lawyers is to get comfortable talking with their business clients about how they are making and spending money. And whether they’re public or private, to be able to understand and discuss earnings. As a lawyer, you don’t have to be the financial spokesperson or the external reporting person. But I think for a young lawyer it’s really important to have a working understanding of financials so that you’re comfortable enough to look at the balance sheet or the quarterly earnings and dial in to the call and follow along and not feel like you have to throw you throw your hands up, because you don’t know what in the world is being said. I mean, I think it does a disservice to some of the really smart lawyers out there to say, ‘Oh, those are numbers. I went to law school because I’m good with words and wouldn’t have to do numbers.’ I think that is kind of silly and self deprecating. And I would encourage all young lawyers to never ever ever have that attitude.
ex judicata: We’re very big on the belief that young lawyers can do a lot of different things, and that goes to one of my final questions. How do you think your law school training has benefitted you through your entire career? .
Maria Dunn: Law is about helping people solve their problems fundamentally. I mean, at heart, we’re helping people solve problems, whether they’re individuals or corporations or communities or regulated parties. I mean, that’s what it is. And I think that business is often about trying to solve a problem: How do I get my goods to market? How do I sell my services, What’s the right price point? Who are my customers?
Lawyers are really trained to look for potential risks and identify and solve problems. But being willing and able to help facilitate the business is also really important, and there’s a subtle mind shift that’s needed that involves thinking and asking about what the business opportunity is, which means broadening our approach and thinking about how to say ‘yes.’ As a lawyer, I was often told that unless it’s illegal, unethical or immoral, it’s a business decision. And so that that really helped me, because then I provided advice and I knew what the boundaries were and when we had crossed the line on something and had to say no. The rest of it is business risk and business judgment. And I think that sensibility is valuable to businesspeople, who can see the lawyer’s trying to help facilitate their business in an ethical and legal way. And that goes a really long way.
ex judicata: Absolutely.
Maria Dunn: One thing I would like to circle back to is we gave an example of environmental law professionals who may have an interest in sustainability. But there are lots of additional disciplines that can feed into sustainability. Remember there is the whole internal workforce and HR and labor matters. I think community relations and engagement is really important and SEC regulations in terms of governance, anti-fraud, and foreign corrupt practices. The list goes on and on of ways that I think that lawyers in many disciplines can help widen the aperture a little bit so we can see the connections between things and then, importantly, learn new things.
ex judicata: I did have one other question. I hope I have this right. In addition to everything else you’ve done; you also are a certified yoga trainer. Is that accurate?
Maria Dunn: Yeah, I am.
ex judicata: That’s awesome. I have to ask how the yoga practice helps you in doing your job.
Maria Dunn: Yoga means union in Sanskrit. It is about bringing the mind, body, and spirit together, and it helps me bring myself together. Very few of us have the luxury of being able to sit on top of a mountain and meditate all day long. I don’t even know if I’d be interested in that.
But yoga does allow me to go in and out of focus when I need to so I can be sort of looking around or maybe just brainstorming something. But then if I have to address something, I think that has really, really helped. It’s a physical release, it’s a stress release, and then it just works on a very subtle level that we don’t even fully understand. That I think just helps promote wellness and that then makes me able to suit up and show up regularly.
ex judicata: Thank you.