How Law Firms Can Improve Their Sustainability

With climate change becoming a more pressing issue for us all, it is likely that customers of the future will choose to work with businesses, including law firms, not just on their professional record but also on their commitment to environmental sustainability. With the 26th UN Climate Change Conference coming up in November 2021 in Glasgow, more and more businesses are embedding climate change considerations into everything they do. In this article, we will take a look at why law firms must immediately embrace environmental sustainability at all levels and how this can be achieved.

Top business executives are now committed to environmental sustainability

A recent survey by Deloitte Global of business leaders shows that over 80% of executives are now concerned about climate change and are determined to take serious action. The survey included 750 business executives in early 2021, and the common theme is that climate change is no longer something in the distance, it is here now. Of those who were surveyed, the biggest issues already impacting or threatening to impact organisations, relates to the operational impact of climate change disasters (e.g. damage to facilities and workforce impacts) and the increasing scarcity and cost of resources (e.g. food, water, and energy).

It has been known for some time that customers prefer to select businesses with strong environmental credentials , especially where the product sold has a clear environmental impact (e.g. coffee), but does this correspond to service industries such as law?

Why the legal industry needs to embrace environmental sustainability now

In January 2021, BlackRock’s chief executive issued a warning to companies it invests in to show plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In 2020, Microsoft stated its intention to become carbon negative by 2030, and as they state, this is “both for our direct emissions and for our entire supply and value chain”. This means that any business that wishes to partner or work for Microsoft will need to be assessed on their contribution to this goal, including law firms. This is referred to as the ‘trickle down’ of pressure to cut carbon from larger organisations to those that provide services to them.

According to Gayatri Joshi , vice president of client management at ecoAnalyze, a US consultancy firm specialising in helping law firms develop sustainability solutions, “Many (firms) are feeling that push from their clients to become more environmentally sustainable and to reduce their environmental impact”. Notably, Joshi says that more legal clients are asking robust and substantive questions about the sustainability efforts of law firms before engaging them. Likewise, pressure is also coming from legal recruits who want to see that they are working for law firms with a strong commitment to the environment. One example of this was the pledge of a boycott by 600 law students in the US in 2020 of law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison unless they removed Exxon from their client books.

How can your law firm makes real progress when it comes to environmental sustainability?

Most of the top law firms around the world now have web pages that clearly state their corporate sustainability policy, and again, as with the ‘trickle effect’, medium and small law firms will likely and increasingly follow suit. Environment sustainability policies typically state publicly how organisations will reduce their footprint in the areas of energy, waste, resources, and travel. Not only that, some now state, just like Microsoft, that they expect to see their major suppliers become environmentally sustainable and even require regular data to prove they are meeting their goals.

Here is what some top UK law firms are already doing:

  • Set up a group or committee whose role it is to meet regularly to make decisions about your law firm’s environmental sustainability strategy.
  • Lead from the top – make sure that the push for environmental sustainability is both endorsed and actively pushed by your senior partners.
  • Create a clear sustainability policy that addresses how you will reduce your climate impact in each area of your business and each practice area – ensure this document is regularly updated and is easily accessible.
  • Encourage staff to consider their modes of transport – this may include asking staff not to fly unless it is absolutely essential. It may also include providing incentives to switch to electric vehicles.
  • Join the Legal Sustainability Alliance (LSA) – the LSA is based in the UK and provides help and support to law firms to help them manage and reduce their carbon emissions. This includes webinars, online resources, and the latest news.
  • Set the target of becoming a ‘Certified B Corporation’ . Certified B Corporations are those that have met the very highest standards for social and environmental performance, accountability and; “Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy”. Some UK law firms have already achieved this certification, and we expect more to do so in the coming months and years.

In conclusion

Putting the pieces together, not only are potential customers of law firms looking closely at environmental sustainability, but so are investors, partners, and employees. Some UK law firms are already very much ahead of the curve and have become Certified B Corporations, a status which not only means that everyone can see they are serious about the environment, it will also ensure their firm is more likely to win lucrative business in the coming years.

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