Sustainability: Q&A with Caroline May

Caroline May is the newly appointed sustainability partner at the global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright and chair of the Law Society’s working group on climate change.

You’re talking to a friend of a friend at a party. How do you describe what you do?

I've been an environment lawyer for over 30 years.

Through that time the subject matter has been through many transitions, starting out as primarily advising on pollution and contamination issues to today advising corporates on:

  • environmental impacts
  • corporate reporting, and
  • the urgent need to decarbonise, and target net zero

The work is varied and challenging but extremely rewarding, and latterly coming into the spotlight in law firms after years of being viewed as a minor specialisation. I have never been so popular/in demand!

To date, what has been the highlight of your time at Norton Rose Fulbright as regards climate change and sustainability?

I think the highlight for me has been being appointed as the first sustainability partner for our firm, charged with implementing and coordinating the sustainable management systems of the firm, and heading our global environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) client advisory offering.

As a global firm we have an opportunity to lead and innovate in this area, share and initiate best practice, and share learnings with our clients as we work together on the challenges faced for all businesses.

How have you taken climate action outside daily practice and what have you achieved?

As an individual I have tried to implement sustainable practices into my home life. I am a keen composter and have reduced plastics in my home.

Since lockdown I (along with many others) have dramatically reduced my personal consumption and am keen to maintain a more sustainable approach to my purchasing in future. I hate food and packaging waste and do my best to eradicate/minimise them.

Outside of my daily practice, being chair of the Law Society’s climate change working group is a privilege and something I hope helps move the dial for the profession in meeting its response to the climate change challenge.

I also co-chair the Legal Sustainability Alliance, a collaboration of leading law firms promoting best practice, and am a director of the Aldersgate group, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in collaboration with business and politics as well as other professional services.

Collaboration will be an important factor in moving this dialogue forwards and meeting net-zero goals, and I work with some amazingly talented and driven people.

What do you consider to be some of the challenges facing lawyers which may prevent them from taking meaningful climate action?

I think a lot of lawyers understand the importance of the issues the world is facing but may struggle to understand how it impacts/affects their daily practice (particularly if their practice is in an area that may seem unconnected).

However, I think on closer examination (and once you start demystifying the agenda) people quickly see how it is cross cutting and may impact their daily practice and that of their clients whether it be insurance risks, latent environmental liabilities, or public health issues such as air/water quality.

I believe lawyers are looking for guidance as regards their role and how they can assist on behalf of the profession, but also so they can be effective advisers to clients. This is where the role of the climate change working group comes in.

We are a representative group of specialist lawyers charged with looking at the key areas of risk and the ethical and professional issues involved, and promulgating solutions/recommendations often in collaboration with Law Society members and other professional bodies.

We hope we can assist solicitors and provide them with the building blocks to respond to this agenda in a way which fits with professional responsibilities and client needs. Solicitors can also be effective advocates for change both in the law and its application/enforcement.

On the generational challenges climate change and sustainability are presenting to firms, what norms and practices have you seen change over the years, and what changes lie ahead?

I think that the pandemic has had the effect of driving fundamental changes in the profession and how we work that are here to stay. The use of technology and the advent of Zoom meetings has belied the necessity for the daily commute or for international business travel that were once viewed as necessities.

I think this whole questioning of previous norms can unlock significant change for the profession, with diversity and inclusion as well as sustainability becoming key drivers in the workplace.

I was one of the first female partners in my firm to wear trousers into the office (and that was not that long ago!) so the accelerated pace of change has been profound. I think it’s an exciting time for lawyers starting out in their careers to make real change, not just on the climate change agenda, but on their working environments and how business will be done in the future too.

As their careers develop (with lots more avenues of opportunity from private practice to in-house, the public sector and academia) and as they assume more senior positions, the challenge will be to avoid replicating past stereotypes and to be more open to change.

The growth in artificial intelligence (AI) will affect everyone’s lives and clients will demand that the profession responds – so it will be an exciting and yet challenging future. Perhaps that was always the case, but it is rather the pace of change and the opportunities it presents that are now accelerating.

Society has become aware of the powerful and compelling role young voices can play in tackling the climate crisis. What role can senior voices in the legal industry play?

I think senior leadership can assist in framing the debate and perhaps balancing out some of the issues into consideration of a more rounded approach.

I also think senior leaders can listen and advocate for the young, and empathise and support in a way that was perhaps lacking when I started out in my career, when structures were much more hierarchical than they are today.

As ever, collaboration and teamwork are key. I think that empowering and enthusing innovation whilst providing a framework for development can be a way forward. Advocating for and supporting those starting out is a responsibility that all senior leaders should share.

What differentiates lawyers from other professionals in being empowered to take meaningful climate action?

I think the law and the role of lawyers is still very much respected both in wider society and in the business world (lawyer jokes aside!).

We do have a powerful – and I believe respected – voice, and with that comes a responsibility to effect change and influence the debate. We are trained to analyse evidence and debate, and to scrutinise new laws and their application. These are all key areas in framing the climate change debate and effecting real change.

What advice would you give, or what existing resources would you highlight, to legal professionals who want to begin to take climate action but who may not know where to start?

There is so much information out there, so I would suggest those who wish to learn more look at respected sources of information in the first instance. The Law Society’s climate change page provides useful sources of reference.

The Legal Sustainability Alliance also has lots of content which may be useful for solicitors as well as other NGOs, such as the Chancery Lane Project where specimen wording and clauses are offered free to the market.

Additionally, the working group members are always willing to assist with any enquiries or issues, and there are education programmes running through many organisations which are free for those who wish to participate.

What book is on your bedside table?

I am dipping into two books at the moment. The first is by Naomi Klein, called This Changes Everything. It is about the economics of climate change and challenges the way our society works and places value on things.

The second is my other great love: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer by Christopher Clarey, tennis correspondent for the New York Times.

What is your biggest hope for the legal profession?

That we remain relevant and proactive in the modern world and are seen to be adding value, not just to legal services, but also to society.

In rare moments of calm, how do you relax?

As one of my book choices reveals I am a tennis fan, both as player and spectator. I have played for over 50 years at various levels and am still an active team player for my club.

I love the game and Roger Federer is my favourite player. His style, determination and general all-round behaviour is great for the game, and he is a fantastic role model for the younger generation. When I retire, I want to attend all four Grand Slams in one calendar year.

Outside of tennis, I enjoy theatre, reading, walking, gardening and, latterly, bird watching – as a group of red kites have nested in our garden.

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