When the law courts with politics
If you have been following the news over the past month, you will have seen that the US Supreme Court is royally messing things up, and that is a massive understatement to stay polite.
On the 24th of June, it overturned Roe v Wade, ending the constitutional right for millions of women to get an abortion. Six days later, another ruling was released, restricting the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) regulatory power on the emissions of fossil fuel plants.
Both of these rulings bring the USA's progress on environmental and social topics decades back in time and will more often than not impact the least fortunate and minorities the most.
While these two rulings highlight the adverse effect the law can have on people and the planet, it is important to remind ourselves that the power of the law can positively drive change.
The legally-binding Montreal Protocol of 1987 has regulated the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances. Signed by 196 nations, the agreement could result in the reduction of nearly 70 billion tonnes of CO2e. That equates to almost 28 years of India's annual emissions!
Judging the industry's environmental performance
Environmental sustainability is rising on the agenda of law firms as clients start requiring commitments from their suppliers and partners. As corporations set carbon reduction targets, law firms must demonstrate that they can contribute positively to these targets.
Law firms are also facing pressure from prospective lawyers. Law students from Harvard and Yale initiated a boycott of the firm Paul Wiess in 2020, encouraging fellow students to not apply for jobs at the company until it had dropped ExxonMobil as one of its customers.
While most of the legal sector's environmental impact will come down to the laws and regulations it sets, the law firms' emissions remain material.
In the UK alone, the top 50 law firms were estimated to emit 150,000 tonnes of CO2e in 2020, equating to roughly 600 million km driven by an average passenger car. In the same year, these firms consumed 265,000 MWh of energy, equivalent to the energy needs of 71,000 households in the UK.
While the emissions concerning energy are important, it is estimated that up to 90% of a law firm's environmental impact will arise from its value chain, with activities such as procurement and business travel.
Once law firms understand their environmental impact after assessing their operational and supply chain emissions, the focus should be on implementing reduction initiatives.
In the UK, more than 30 firms have signed up to the Net Zero Lawyers Alliance, committing to reaching Net Zero by 2050 and offering legal services that support the decarbonization goals of their clients. This involves setting a 50% carbon reduction target by 2030, but how can law firms achieve this?
- Law firms consume a lot of paper, spending an average of 3% of their revenues on printing! Firms should use digital documents when feasible, print on both sides of the sheet and procure recycled paper.
- Lawyers visit their clients often, which emits a lot of emissions through business travel. Digital communications should be favoured when possible, and trains should be preferred over planes when visiting clients.
- Being office-based companies, law firms should focus on decarbonizing their real estate. Many levers exist for this, such as procuring renewable energy, using smart sensors for lighting and insulating buildings.
- Given the large share of value chain offices, law firms should focus on sustainable procurement. This can involve sourcing from suppliers with high environmental performance standards, such as B Corporations or companies having set science-based carbon reduction targets.
More widely, law firms should equip their lawyers with the skills needed to support their clients with decarbonization goals and climate change laws, which have the potential to create positive climate action ripple effects.
Putting the legal industry in motion
Law firms are in a privileged position where they can minimize their environmental impact but also create system change. One of the firms excelling at this is Bates Wells.
They are the first law firm in the UK to become a B Corporation, a company meeting the highest standards of environmental and social performance.
We are committed to both actively reducing our impact on the environment and to using law as a force for good to support a just transition to net zero.
To drive positive change, Bates Wells started by measuring its emissions from both its operations and its supply chain. As decarbonization is not achieved alone, the firm has engaged its suppliers, setting the expectation that they commit to reaching Net Zero emissions by 2030. This is done by inserting legal clauses in their supplier contracts!
Beyond its supply chain, Bates Wells also supports its employees in taking climate action by helping them switch their pensions to ones that exclude investments in fossil fuels and providing subsidies to help employees switch to green energy suppliers at home.
More widely, the firm supports its clients to proactively consider climate and biodiversity issues in their decision-making and is working to upskill its people on climate change topics. By doing so, the firm successfully uses legal instruments for positive environmental impact.
This story brings home an important point about decarbonization which is that it cannot be achieved alone and that beyond the remits of their direct impact, organizations should focus on how they can create far-reaching positive environmental change.