In light of the increasing urgency around climate change, sustainability has been on the minds of business and legal professionals alike over recent years and will no doubt continue to be so. With climate strikes, new environmental legislation and rising investment in green technology, it is no wonder that many companies are taking steps to prove their own dedication to sustainability.

Although the past year has temporarily placed many ESG initiatives on the backburner as firms struggle to respond to the pandemic, there is no doubt that many will see the changes of the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink sustainable strategy and put ESG first.  Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled plans to “build back greener” and spark a “green industrial revolution” as we recover from the woes of pandemic disruption. As a Geography graduate and future trainee solicitor, I am interested to know how the legal industry is impacted by this shift toward more sustainable pathways. While I am passionate about creating a world that is safe and habitable for future generations, I am also fascinated by the new challenges and opportunities that a sustainable future brings for lawyers. There is more than just an ethical responsibility for lawyers to take note of the current climate agenda. In this blog, I will demonstrate why I believe that every lawyer should be concerned with being more sustainable and keeping informed on the latest developments regarding climate action.

Behaving sustainably is an ethical choice

I won’t go into too much detail here, as the likes of Greta Thunberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Attenborough have done a pretty good job on raising awareness on the perils of climate change. To sum up, climate change causes rising sea levels and so the flooding of low-lying coasts, as well as weather instability, food shortages and the loss of wildlife diversity. Climate change is a problem closely associated with other environmental issues, such as habitat destruction and ocean plastic pollution. Overall, climate change threatens our planet and everything in it and thus we all have an ethical responsibility to work towards a greener future.

Making ethical choices is especially important for lawyers, as the industry is inherently founded on values of justice and equality. Moreover, change in the legal industry can have an impact on reducing carbon footprints. Aspects of legal work like mountains of printing and overseas travel to meet with clients contribute to rising greenhouse gas levels, and so reducing where possible is important for maintaining the industry reputation in the challenging years to come. After all, there are currently over 150,000 practising solicitors registered under the SRA – collectively, sustainable practices amongst lawyers alone can make a huge difference. That’s not to mention the thousands of other legal professionals, all of whom have the power to make little changes and lobby for bigger ones.

Rising sea levels…and expectations

By being more sustainable in any way you can demonstrate to clients that you care about your impact on the planet. Here at Obelisk Support, we are proud to have made several changes to our office in order to reduce our environmental impact – but we will continue to strive for improvement. In our most recent CSR report, we described some of our strategies which include buying eco-friendly or reusable products for the office, taking care to recycle waste and encouraging the team to commute with public transport. We also reported an average carbon footprint over 5 times smaller than the UK average. Of course, there are a wide range of ways that you can portray your climate-conscious initiative. Even with the pandemic turning many of our homes into offices, there are many small and simple changes you can make when remote working to improve your carbon footprint.

“Our planet is a shared living space, therefore we believe we should all do our bit to look after it” – CEO of Obelisk Support, Dana Denis-Smith.

At Obelisk Support, we do this not only because it’s extremely important to us, but also we believe it’s important to our clients and consultants. Similarly, dozens of law firms have joined the Legal Sustainability Alliance, a group of firms hoping to reduce their carbon footprint. Clearly,  change in the legal sector to accommodate our environmental impact is already happening.

A rise of green business ventures means more opportunities

While clients are expecting representation from groups whose values reflect their own, clients are also venturing into new business opportunities that arise out of the fight against climate change. For example, ESG investing has continued to rise over the recent years, with 85% of investors indicating their interest. Moreover, UK-listed firms will soon have to be transparent about climate risks they may encounter, under new rules being introduced by the FCA to stimulate a less carbon-intensive economy. The pandemic is not enough to stop the growth of green business, with renewable energy installation hitting peak growth in 2020 in stark contrast to the turmoil that the fossil fuel industry confronted the very same year.

With more clients launching business ventures in sustainability, be that in sustainable bonds, renewable energy or electric vehicles, there is an increased demand for legal representation that is well-versed in climate-related challenges and opportunities. Also, with many corporations announcing pledges to reduce their climate impact (like Microsoft, which plans to be carbon negative by 2030), it is likely that firms will need their legal support team to assist in reaching these targets. Overall, demonstrating sustainable prowess is one aspect of attracting green-conscious clients, as well as keeping up to date with the latest in sustainable innovation.

New legislation is shaking things up

On the more technical side of things, there is a lot of new legislation being introduced as governments try to reduce emissions. The most pertinent example may be the 2008 Climate Change Act, which made legally binding the UK’s goal for reducing emissions by 78% by 2035 (in comparison to 1990 levels). In 2019, the UK went further to announce the target of ‘net zero’ by 2050, one of the most ambitious targets globally. Other legislation, rules and targets are likely to come into force – and clients expect lawyers to be aware of them (the FCA climate-risk disclosure rule being a further example). Lawyers should also be prepared for reducing the risk of climate litigation on behalf of their clients.

Pro bono

Finally, as with new billable work, there is also new pro bono work available in the environmental sector. Pro bono work can be traced back to England in the 1400s and is now a fundamental aspect of being a lawyer. If pro bono work is rooted in values of justice and bettering the community, then of course legal work to combat climate change on behalf of eco-charities like Client Earth is likely to proliferate. In addition to pro bono work, there are also opportunities to collaborate with initiatives like The Chancery Lane Project, which is a network of lawyers and legal professionals working to incorporate climate-conscious clauses into contracting by providing free model clauses and glossaries.

Engaging with these pro bono opportunities also benefits lawyers as they can use these projects to develop new skills and be exposed to legal work outside of usual spheres. Indeed, pro bono work can create a sense of immense pride for lawyers and engaging with environmental pro bono can benefit society for years to come.

Sustainability and the legal sector: where do we go next?

While I have outlined the various opportunities that the shift toward sustainability presents, there are undoubtedly going to be challenges and sacrifices in order to achieve the goal of a healthy planet. I chose to study Geography for my undergraduate degree because I was keen to learn more about these challenges that Earth faces and begin thinking critically about solutions. After all, Geography can be translated to “earth writing”, and I have thoroughly enjoyed doing just that over the past three years. However, moving forward into the world of law, I feel empowered by the changes happening in the industry and truly feel that lawyers can contribute toward a better, greener world. Such changes also make the legal profession an incredibly exciting industry to be working in, so I remain positive that the innovations we see at the moment are only just beginning.

Climate change and the drive for sustainability will  undoubtedly impact all kinds of legal practice areas. No one and nothing will be left unscathed, so wide scale transformation is needed in order to combat the environmental crisis we are facing. Ultimately, I envision a future where environmental degradation is decoupled from economic prosperity – an ambitious goal, but an important one nonetheless.

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