'We got work to do': Dr. Carol Liao is remodelling sustainable corporate law

The notion that law was only meant for the argumentative is something that’s always perplexed Dr. Carol Liao.

“That's to me the most inaccurate description of what you want a lawyer to be like,” she said.

For Liao, being a lawyer is about “think[ing] beyond black letter law.”

Within the first 10 minutes of speaking to her, it was clear that Liao excelled in the art of thinking beyond the hornbooks of law. It wasn’t just because she spoke about climate risk disclosures and gaps in legal frameworks in a manner that demystifies technical jargon and adds much-needed colour to it — it’s because her attention to detail, a crucial element of practicing law, encompasses the people around her first.

“I look forward to following your career too,” she said, noting that she had taken it upon herself to check my previous work. It’s a simple gesture, but it's the first time a source has taken the time to “research” me, as Liao put it. It’s this attention to detail that lends credibility to her observations.

Liao is an associate professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and the Sauder Distinguished Fellow of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at UBC Sauder. Her research concerns the intersection between law and sustainability, climate change and social justice.

As Liao explained, her story likely mirrors that of many second-generation immigrants, particularly those of Asian heritage — that a sense of achievement is found via a demanding profession.

Liao brought up Ronny Chieng’s Netflix special Asian Comedian Destroys America, where Chieng jokes about the stereotype that Asian immigrant parents force their children into professions such as medicine and law.

For Liao, this stereotype alludes to the ambition of “flipping the clan narrative in one generation.”

“When he said that, I just laughed and laughed, but I also was like, I'm laughing because it’s true,” Liao said. “It's kind of a power thing.”

In 2020, 65 years after Margaret Gee became the first Asian woman to practice law in British Columbia, Liao became the first woman of colour to receive tenure at Allard Law. However, by her own admission, she opted to keep this achievement private at the time.

“[Allard doesn’t] like that stat,” Liao said. After all, it invites an awkward conversation when such an accomplishment was only achieved this decade at an institution that prides itself on its progressiveness.

Liao, like other people of colour, is acutely aware of how her identity as an Asian woman influences her surroundings and in turn, influences her own lived experiences.

In a blog post for Allard Law, Liao highlights the hypervisibility and invisibility that juxtaposes the Asian experience in North America — on the one hand, her identity invites unwarranted comments on her English fluency and being “told to go back to where [she] came from.” On the other hand, stereotypes of purported Asian excellence mask very real issues such as exacerbated poverty rates amongst those of Asian descent.

Liao has taken her past and her present in stride, opting to funnel her experiences into the tangible changes she has made to improve the world for her, her three kids and for everyone else.

It has also helped her recognize the intersectionality of climate change.

“As our climate crisis accelerates and disproportionately harms those most marginalized, we need to disrupt old systems.”
“As our climate crisis accelerates and disproportionately harms those most marginalized, we need to disrupt old systems.” Saumya Kamra / The Ubyssey

“The crux of all of this to me is about power,” Liao said of her research. “As our climate crisis accelerates and disproportionately harms those most marginalized, we need to disrupt old systems.”

Liao is the chair and a principal co-investigator of the Canada Climate Law Initiative (CCLI), a “national interdisciplinary research hub” that seeks to spur climate-conscious behaviour within corporate and regulatory bodies through information sessions and legal recommendations.

“It's almost like a dating thing,” Liao joked, “because we match experts to the organization to ensure this depth of knowledge in the application of CCLI’s work.”

For Liao, the severity of the climate crisis makes a turn towards climate-conscious behaviour less of an act of charity and more of a moral obligation.

On climate change and corporate duty, Liao said that “climate change is so bad now that corporate boards have an obligation to put climate risk on the agenda.”

“They actually may be in breach of their fiduciary duties to the corporation if they do not understand the risks and opportunity that climate change is putting upon their organization.”

Per the CCLI, a majority of the boards who receive its presentations engage in some form of climate action such as including climate experts in the board and setting climate-related targets. It's a fact Liao spoke of with pride.

Liao feels similarly towards her own profession — lawyers have an obligation to communicate the reality of climate change to their clients in the same way they would for any other risk. In 2022, she penned an op-ed urging members of the Law Society of British Columbia to vote in favour of a resolution that would mandate lawyers to consider climate change in their day-to-day work. The resolution ultimately failed the vote, an outcome that two years later is still something Liao doesn’t look back on fondly.

“There's … this resistance that may come from how we almost teach lawyers to be risk averse,” she said on the profession’s stagnancy on climate action. “We want [lawyers] to use precedence and we don't want them charting new paths.”

Liao talked about how law in its current form is precedented, but that this dependence on the past is inherently incompatible with climate change, which is unprecedented by definition.

“The truth is that a lot of our laws to date are largely unable to respond to the regulatory gaps that arise from these complex earth system challenges.”

For Liao, the debate is no longer about the science behind climate change. The fight now is about values, ideology and rationalizing the needs of different groups.

“The impacts of climate change have had and will continue to have disproportionately negative effects on Indigenous peoples and their territories, along with racial disparities, gender differentiated impacts, unbalanced harmful effects on the Global South, and greater detriments on the poor, children, and the most marginalized in our communities,” Liao added in a follow-up email to The Ubyssey.

That being said, Liao looks towards the future with a sense of optimism.

As she observes students in her classes, she is confident that the next generation will “expect more from their institutions.”

When asked what she’d want to say to the generation that is “inheriting” the planet, Liao was succinct.

“Don't doubt your voice,” she said with a smile. “The system wasn't designed for you. So break it.”