Climate change continues to tighten its grip on the global ecosystem. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Paris Agreement issued the lofty goal of ”holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
Achieving that goal requires the industry to curb the emissions that introduce greenhouse gases and increase global temperature. Achieving carbon neutrality is the most sought-after solution.
Countries have overhauled and adopted new environmental policies, with a strong emphasis on industrial regulation to reduce emissions and achieve sustainable targets. While outside the traditional scope of the emission-producing industry, law firms’ operations cannot escape the environmental compliance requirements unscathed.
Sustainable law firms
In July 2021, more than 20 global law firms — including Slaughter and May, DLA Piper, Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills, and Shearman & Sterling — established the Net Zero Lawyers Alliance, which has committed to accelerating the transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
While signing the Greener Litigation Pledge, DLA Piper’s global co-CEO, Simon Levine, said in a statement that the alliance is “encouraging as many firms as possible to get involved. We can take responsibility as well as action to reduce our own emissions, but as lawyers, we can also have a material impact on our clients’ journey in tackling the climate emergency.”
He added that “committing to ensuring our lawyers have the capability to help clients in this regard and providing pro-bono hours to help shape a regulatory landscape that supports reducing the world’s carbon footprint is not only important, it is critical.”
Solutions for sustainable law firms
In recent months and years, there has been significant pressure on businesses to operate ethically and sustainably. Many professional services firms including consulting, law firms, accounting, have defined goals and stated ESG (environmental, social and governance) policies and targets. Some of the measures that law firms have adopted to pursue carbon neutrality and sustainability include:
- Reducing energy consumption and switching to renewable energy sources
- Auditing and reducing the environmental footprint of their facilities and equipment
- Minimising printing and paper usage
- Reducing waste
- Recycling where possible
- Curbing plastic use
- Minimising travel, and using telephone and videoconferencing whenever possible
Additionally, some law firms have begun participating in global environmental initiatives, such as afforestation and educating local personnel, to drive toward sustainability. For example, this year, international arbitration, natural resources, and climate innovation law firm Draper & Draper offset the entirety of its calculated carbon emissions by supporting a reforestation project in Nicaragua.
Law firm sustainability initiatives v. clients’ business models
While many law firms aspire to carbon neutrality, some of these same firms regularly represent some of the most ecologically unfriendly fossil fuel giants and manufacturers. In doing so, the question arises: Aren’t these law firms contributing to the ballooning carbon footprint globally by indirectly condoning, and even encouraging, emissions?
An August 2021 Los Angeles Times article explored instances in which Method Campaign Services advertised a job opening of “environmental fellowship.” However, the position actually involved working for the natural gas industry, specifically with non-zero-emission trucks.
In addition, law students for climate accountability recently issued the second iteration of its climate change “scorecard,” which assigns letter grades to the country’s 100 most prestigious law firms, as ranked by Vault Law. The law students behind the report examined the Vault 100 firms’ clients involved in climate-related court cases, for whom the law firms engage in lobbying activities, and whose transactions they regularly facilitate. A striking 36 of the 100 firms earned failing grades on the specified parameters.
Striking the right cord
While everyone is entitled to a lawyer, it is also true that everyone deserves clean air, clean water, and a habitable Earth. “Law firms too frequently consider themselves neutral actors,” the Climate Change Scorecard report concluded in their recommendations and commitments. “This view is inaccurate. Law firms consciously choose how to deploy their limited resources, and they should not provide their legal services in support of fossil fuel work and other climate injustice.”
The change to a green and sustainable future is essential to the planet’s survival, but law firms’ backing clients with vast carbon footprints may slow the world’s pace in its pursuit of carbon neutrality.
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