Law firms look up: climate action to protect the rule of law

Law firms must use their voices and influence to confront the reality which lies ahead. Alasdair Cameron explores what action firms should be taking now to help tackle the climate crisis and safeguard the rule of law.
Silhouette of person looking up at meteor shower in night sky

Many may have watched Don’t Look Up, the tongue-in-cheek allegory of the climate crisis starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, over the festive break.

However, its core message is no less sobering than turning to the latest reports on the threat climate change presents to our planet’s inhabitants.

2022 began with the World Economic Forum listing climate action failure, extreme weather events and biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as the top three of the top 10 global risks ranked by severity over the next 10 years in its Global Risks Report published on 11 January.

For lawyers, the implications of these risks to the fabric which supports our society – the rule of law, which they have a duty to uphold – are immense.

In March 2022, University College London is hosting a conference on how the climate crisis threatens the stability of the rule of law, with a session specifically on the ‘Rule of Law, Rule of Lawyers’.

It's clear now that all solicitors must take heed of the impacts of climate change as it reshapes the world – natural and unnatural – around us.

Indeed, all layers of society are already beginning to take an active role in driving climate ambition and locating solutions.

Joining a united front

In 2021, the unprecedented engagement from the private sector at COP26 indicated a shift to more ‘bottom-up’ approaches in climate governance rather than being restricted to traditional top-down approaches.

The second part of COP15 on the Convention of Biodiversity will be held in April 2022. Its draft framework contains a comparatively ambitious aim to keep “1.5°C alive”, by committing to conserve 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030.

This will present broad, unparalleled challenges and opportunities for both the public and private sector in the development of nature-based solutions and the vital conservation of the world’s ecosystems.

In response to these pervasive threats, the Law Society published a climate change resolution ahead of COP26 to inform our own policy on climate action as well as urge solicitors to help take the lead in confronting the climate crisis – joining a chorus of policies, resolutions and statements published by other international bars such as the International Bar Association (IBA), the Law Council of Australia and American Bar Association.

Our resolution urges solicitors to “engage in climate conscious legal practice” by mainstreaming climate change throughout their daily practice.

This includes:

  • approaching “any matter arising in the course of legal practice with regard to the likely impact of that matter upon the climate crisis” and
  • providing “competent advice to their clients on (i) how they can achieve their objectives in ways which mitigate the effects of the climate crisis; and (ii) the potential legal risks and liabilities that may arise from action or inaction that negatively contributes to the climate crisis”

We also encourage law firms to adopt “practical measures to reduce the environmental impact of their business and policies which mitigate their contribution to the climate crisis through the provision of legal services”.

The resolution also urges “law firms and organisations that support the legal industry to operate in a way which restricts the increase in global warming to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to above 1.5°C pre-industrial levels”.

Turning tides?

Many large law firms have already begun to develop initiatives and policies to combat the climate crisis, continuing the trend of firms becoming more purpose led.

Promising developments such as Clifford Chance’s decision to adopt a policy that could see the firm move away from client matters that present climate change risks indicate the pace and direction at which these issues are moving.

On the other hand, with the potential liabilities attached to greenwashing (see Climate-washing litigation: legal liability for misleading climate communications), firms should be pursuing genuine and meaningful policies that are measured against the threat the climate crisis presents, whilst also aligning with the UN Global Compact, as these agendas cannot be pursued in isolation.

This will help shepherd in a more sustainable future that will not only protect the planet for future generations but attract talent which will help firms and clients thrive today and tomorrow.

We all must recognise that there is still a large gap between the present and achieving this reality, and we all have a role to play.

Bridging the gap

Our climate change working group is collaborating with other committees within the Law Society, and external stakeholders, to develop practical guidance on:

  • how climate change is impacting specific areas of the law
  • how to run firms in a manner which is compatible with net-zero targets set by the UK government

Further, in pursuit of the commitments we’ve made within our climate change resolution, we’ll deliver guidance for solicitors on ethical and professional duty issues raised by the climate crisis.

In recognition of the need for global collaboration, we were delighted to join other UK law societies at COP26 to accelerate climate action within the legal sector.

We'll continue to enhance our work and impact by collaborating with other international legal organisations to build consensus on how we and others can help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.

Law societies, law firms and lawyers must play a role in tackling the climate crisis by lending their efforts, voices and influence to avert the reality which lies ahead, which should be kept on our film and television screens.

Tools to take action

Take a look at our climate change resolution

Net zero: what solicitors can do

Look at our tools, initiatives and programmes to help you get started as you incorporate net-zero considerations into your firm’s practice

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