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The role of lawyers in the green transition: six ways of making a positive impact

Climate emergency, ESG, sustainable investment, green transition – these terms have become buzzwords across many industries, not least the legal sector.

As has been recognised by The Law Society, which recently released its guidance on the impact of climate change on solicitors, the legal profession can play a crucial role in mitigating the climate crisis. Whether they do this from an ethical point of view or simply to remain competitive in today’s market, legal professionals should leverage the influence they have in society – through lobbying, litigation, and legislation – to accelerate the green transition.

Different legal actors can make different key contributions towards a more sustainable economy and planet. Whilst law firms bring external expertise, broad industry knowledge, and specialised resources, in-house lawyers can make use of the deep knowledge of their organisations, close collaboration with internal teams, and a wider focus on implementation. For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on the role of private practice.

Some law firms have been taking internal steps to mitigate climate change for quite some time. However, both clients and staff, in particular the younger generations who tend to have a greater awareness of environmental issues, are making clear that the implementation of eco-friendly office measures is simply no longer enough.

Law firms are increasingly aware of this growing demand for action around climate change. As a result, they are taking further measures to demonstrate their commitment to a green transition, and sustainability-focused legal alliances are emerging around the world. In the UK, for example, the Chancery Lane Project aims to decarbonise legal contracts (see also point 3 below), and the recently launched Legal Charter 1.5 sets out eight principles, committing law firms to climate crisis mitigation.

During my research, I identified six main ways in which legal professionals can make and, in some instances, have been making a positive impact, and accelerating the green transition. I also address in some more detail how lawyers are increasingly being scrutinised for their role in the climate crisis.

1 – Legal Advice, Compliance and Disclosure

Lawyers will be crucial in enacting and enforcing the legal framework for a green transition.

One important way lawyers can help is by providing competent advice to clients while taking into consideration how the latter can achieve their objectives in a way that mitigates the effects of climate change. This includes the identification of any potential risks that may arise from their clients’ operations which negatively contribute to the climate crisis.

Another crucial task is helping clients understand their obligations and navigate the new wave of environmental compliance requirements – from emissions standards and sustainable business practices to accurate and transparent climate-related disclosures. This is particularly relevant when considering that in recent years the government has set legally binding targets and compliance requirements which will affect most if not all businesses.

On top of that, almost a third of the UK’s largest businesses have pledged to eliminate their contribution to carbon emissions by 2050, and they will be looking to their lawyers to achieve those goals while remaining compliant and competitive.

Lastly, another effective response law firms can take to help tackle the climate emergency is to engage in pro bono work – more often than not, organisations pushing for a green change are non-profit and/or under-resourced.

2 – Driving Climate-friendly Policies

Legal professionals have the necessary knowledge and power to influence policy and legislative changes. By actively engaging in advocacy and lobbying to shape environmental and climate-related regulations, they can make a real difference. Their force can be multiplied by collaborating with government organisations, NGOs and advocacy groups, as they can work towards the implementation of climate-friendly policies and stronger environmental protection with experts in the field. Examples of this include developing new legal frameworks that promote sustainability, such as legal mechanisms for carbon pricing.

By working with governments to build new climate and environmental legislation, legal professionals have a huge part to play in dictating how big and small corporations as well as individuals approach environmental matters.

3 – Structuring Sustainable Deals

Legal professionals can help pave the way towards climate crisis mitigation, one contract at a time. After all, lawyers are needed to make deals happen – that can mean anything from the financing of reforestation projects and formalities of green/blue bonds to getting the building permits for new fossil fuel plants (see also point 4 for a further discussion of choosing the right client).

Lawyers can effectuate change through every contract they draft by promoting climate-aligned contracting. Incorporating climate clauses that promote eco-friendly operations in contracts helps the planet by enabling businesses to take the lead in transitioning to net-zero operations. Again, this is not only beneficial for tackling the climate emergency, but also for businesses to remain competitive in today’s market. Furthermore, it allows firms to deliver practical rapid action and respond to the climate crisis without having to wait for the government to enact laws, thereby taking the lead in a wider societal green transition.

4 – Choosing the right clients

Whilst many law firms have long-standing environmental or climate change practices, this isn’t necessarily a positive sign indicating the firm is contributing to a green transition – often, those departments assist fossil fuel clients and pollutants with continuing their ‘ungreen’ business. Law firms are an essential pillar of the fossil fuel industry. They are the ones advising on and facilitating contracts for new pipelines and refineries, lobbying policymakers, and defending clients for environmental violations and/or crimes.
Besides structuring sustainable deals, legal professionals can go a step further and choose to assist clients who are working towards decarbonisation and increased sustainability instead of those who work against it.

Whilst there should be no new oil, gas, and coal projects, equally as important is to choose to help existing fossil fuel businesses transition to greener operations. These companies contribute a significant portion of the UK’s greenhouse emissions, and they are not just going to disappear in the near future as we need materials such as gas for the increasing energy demand. What is more, currently, the increase in atmospheric CO2 is not slowing down, it is actually increasing by 3.5ppm per year.

Hence, it is crucial to make sure that these companies don’t keep operating in a way that is harmful to the environment, but rather assist them in their transition to greener technologies. That way, we can address emissions at the source, giving ourselves the opportunity to rapidly and drastically reduce carbon emissions, something we desperately must do if we are to have a chance of getting to net zero by 2050. Helping these businesses transition to greener practices can also enhance the public’s and investors’ confidence in them, attracting socially responsible investors and further promoting sustainability in the industry.

5 – Litigation

In cases where environmental conflicts arise, legal professionals play a crucial role in determining whether companies will be held accountable for their actions against the environment, including the climate. Lawyers can represent clients in litigation related to environmental damage, pollution, and breaches of environmental regulation, among others.

Take as an example the recent legal action brought against Shell by Friends of the Earth and other plaintiffs. In 2019, they filed a lawsuit known as the ‘Climate Case’ against Shell, and won, in what is considered the first time a court has legally required a company to align its policies with the goals of the Paris Agreement. As a result of this case, companies worldwide are now in a position where they can be held accountable for the climate crisis, and they know their actions can have legal and financial consequences. This is a major driver for corporations to work towards a greener economy.

6 – Spreading Awareness

Lawyers and law firms can position themselves as thought leaders and promote awareness around environmental laws and regulations as well as the importance of ESG and sustainability for businesses to clients, the general public, and aspiring lawyers. This can include the hosting of seminars, webinars, workshops, and other events as well as the dissemination of their expertise through publications, podcasts and other media. Many firms have also started engaging with law schools to educate students on the legal implications of the climate crisis.

Scrutiny as a force for good

As argued above, lawyers’ actions can have a positive or negative impact when it comes to the green transition, depending on their approach. This fact is increasingly being acknowledged: There is growing scrutiny on lawyers and law firms regarding their involvement in the climate crisis, as they are both being criticised for their fossil fuel and environmental degradation enabling practices or, conversely, recognised for their sustainability and climate change mitigation work.

For example, The Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA) is an organisation created by students that seeks to amplify the roles and responsibilities of the legal industry in our current climate crisis. The group created the LSCA Law Firm Climate Change scorecard in order to understand the role the legal industry plays in the climate crisis. By ranking law firms according to how much fossil fuels work they have taken part in over a five-year period, the scorecard aims to draw awareness to the role that law firms play in creating, implementing, and safeguarding fossil fuel projects, as well as protecting the people who profit off them.

Legal directories such as The Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners have also started putting climate change and ESG practices under the microscope within their law firm rankings. The Legal 500 Green Guide, which launched in 2021, aims to highlight firms which are making a positive contribution to a green transition. The global guide examines sustainability-related mandates across the entire range of legal practice areas, while also looking at law firms’ internal sustainability measures and initiatives as well as engagement beyond the legal work, such as the provision of resources and tools for clients, and thought leadership on the topic.

Not only can guides like these help individuals, businesses and organisations identify and choose law firms who are truly experts when it comes to the green transition and have a genuine commitment to sustainability (or help avoid those who don’t), but they will also drive the legal sector’s deeper engagement with the role it has to play in averting the climate crisis and working towards a healthier planet.

Article written by Maya Sainani

Maya is an aspiring environmental lawyer with a particular interest on biodiversity protection. She recently obtained a 1st class degree in Law from the University of Sussex and is presently working as a legal journalist for the Legal500 Green Guide, which focuses on highlighting law firms’ contribution to a green transition internationally.  Currently, Maya is also in the process of obtaining a masters in law with the University of Law in London.