As floods devastate Asia and Europe, and the US suffers oppressive heatwaves, Byfield’s Senior Content Executive Tobias Sansome asks the question: what can legal firms do in the fight against climate change?
“The more things change, the more they stay the same”
In the last decade the climate ‘debate’ has conclusively ended. The evidence has been overwhelmingly supportive of the established theory – that the planet has been undergoing a period of rapid change as a result of human interference. Yet, despite the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the crisis; much of the professional world has been slow to adapt to the changing times. As far back as 2010, the consensus was – as the Harvard Business Review put it – that sustainability would constitute the next great ‘megatrend’; influencing businesses to change practises, re-orient goals and reconsider client lists. The reality across many markets was, of course, somewhat less dramatic.
As early as 2008, public and private legal organisations had published pledges and charters designed to reduce environmental impact. One such example is the eco-pledge signed by State Bar of California Lawyers, which gives detailed examples on how law firms can minimise their impact, including: education policies for new workers; reducing paper usage; and enforcing whitelists for office cleaning products. In the years since 2008, firms have implemented increasingly stringent regulations – yet despite this, many within the sector are asking the question: “is it enough, and could we do more?”
“People don’t like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster”
In more recent years, the now-visible nature of climate change has spurred substantial reform. Firms across the legal sector have adopted the ethos of ‘green practise’ and have sought to implement changes that would reduce the environmental cost of their work. Many firms now offer ‘opt-in’ green clauses when creating contracts with clients; whilst others ‘bake in’ more complex green practises as standard. These include practises such as: utilising conference calls over travel; working with contractors to ensure supplies and services are environmentally sound; and utilising green lighting, heating and water systems.
Many firms are also seeking to inspire their clients into green practise. A number of law firms are lobbying their clients against the dangers that lax internal guidelines and ‘irresponsible environmental behaviour’ pose to the wellbeing of their company. Most prominent amongst these threats is the (substantial) legal and reputational damage created by ‘greenwashing’ – the act of falsely professing allegiance to environmental causes – intended to mitigate the continuing environmental damage by the firm in question. In addition to this, some firms now go as far as to screen prospective clients to determine their green ‘credentials’ before agreeing to represent them – a practise that until recently was more common in other professional services sectors.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
An important note, however, is that some of the most effective work being done to mitigate environmental damage within the sector is being done not by individual innovative firms – but by collaboration between firms. These fall (broadly speaking) into two camps: campaign groups formed by environmentally-minded industry leading firms that seek to proselytise to others, and encourage them to sign pledges to sustainability goals; and industry alliances formed to act as environmental watchdogs (and at times, quasi-regulators) to the legal sector, offering guidance, words of caution, and even material support.
The Campaign for Greener Arbitrations is an excellent example of the former; a campaign group that seeks to encourage law firms to adopt environmentally friendly internal policies, and sign the Green Pledge asserting that they will continue to improve upon their environmental policies. This archetype has spawned other iterations across niches within the legal sector, including a campaign designed specifically to encourage mediators to work to improve their green credentials, and sign the green pledge. Organisations and campaigns such as these have sought to recruit and unify firms behind specific campaigns and pledges, and have done exceptional work within the sector in educating, encouraging and orchestrating new collaborative efforts to mitigate climate damage and encourage green practise.
In addition to campaign groups, there are a myriad of environmentally-focused legal alliances that operate within various regions around the world, most notably the Law Firm Sustainability Network (US) and the Legal Sustainability Alliance (UK). Since its inception in 2011, the LFSN has now grown a substantial roster of member firms that abide by its charter and utilise the alliance for additional education, market analysis, technical expertise and database resources. Moreover, the LFSN has recently released the American Legal Industry Sustainability Standards (ALISS), which is a self-assessment and grading tool for law firms to measure the success of their new environmentally friendly practices.
Similar to the LFSN is the Legal Sustainability Alliance which describes itself as “an inclusive movement of legal firms and organisations” that have formed an alliance dedicated to “working collaboratively to take action to improve the environmental sustainability of their operations and activities” in the United Kingdom. Comprised of more than 390 global members, it provides resources such as: Carbon Calculators to determine footprints; scientific analysis of key targets by partner, Carbon.ci; and an annual LSA ‘progress report’, which detail the self-reported actions members have taken to increase sustainability over the prior year.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Organisations such as the LFSN and the LSA; and campaign groups such as the Campaign for Greener Arbitrations have provided exceptional guidance, valuable logistical resources, and – arguably – a form of collective authority that is capable of instigating change within the sector. The greatest accomplishment of these movements however, is that they have educated firms and lawyers on their own significance within the fight against climate change – and the additional level of responsibility that comes with it.
Lawyers (and in a broader sense, law firms in general) have enjoyed the stature of their profession for a long time. Not only are lawyers the unquestionable experts on the (often esoteric) practise of law; they are often seen as societal leaders and influencers – perceived as carrying additional credibility and authority – due in part to the rigour of their education, and in part to the way in which law permeates every facet of society. As such, practitioners of the law must choose to wield their authority to wholeheartedly support the adoption of green practise. After all – it’s not just the legal sector that depends on it. We all do.