the legal sector’s role in addressing climate change

Paige Alexander, Student Advisor at the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic, wrote this piece at the end of last year for a Brodies LLP writing competition. The piece had to be on ‘the legal sector’s role in addressing climate change’. Paige came runner-up in the competition and has shared her piece with the Clinic for us to publish. Well done again Paige!

(Paige Alexander, Student Advisor)

The legal sector can no longer turn a blind eye to the impending climate emergency. The mere implementation of eco-friendly office measures is no longer sufficient. Law firms must utilise their influence within society to induce impactive change. Firms need to adopt a proactive approach at an operational level. They must strive to create a legal sphere, where every contract in law creates a solution to the climate crisis. To pave the way for decarbonisation, a climate conscious framework must be at the heart of our daily practice.

In light of COP26, the legal sector is under society’s burning spotlight of scrutiny. Yet, many law firms remain blissfully ignorant to the climate emergency. This approach likely stems from their apprehension surrounding operational change. However, firms can catalyse effectual change simply by letting their lawyers be lawyers. All lawyers can mitigate the climate crisis by accepting their moral responsibility and using their existing skills to yield a practical response. Many lawyers are exceptional communicators, enabling them to create a narrative, which guides clients to understand complex concepts. Firms must encourage their employees to utilise these skills to champion net-zero, both internally and externally. Subsequently, generating imperative societal support, for extensive changes required to cut carbon emissions and tackle the climate emergency.

An effective response to the climate emergency, requires firms to engage in pro-bono work, beyond client cases. The organisations championing constructive change are grossly underfunded. Therefore, many legal violations concerning climate change are not considered due to a lack of legal resources. Pro-bono litigation is required to enable influential precedent to be established. Firms must invest their resources in extensive research for prospective climate legislation. This would create momentum for the passing of necessary statutory regimes. Law firm’s investment into tackling the climate crisis is in their client’s best interests. If unprevented, climate change will have severe repercussions for society, business and the wider economy. Therefore, failure to respond to the climate emergency, would be detrimental to clients and the legal profession in the long term.

Law firms can effectively respond to the climate emergency through client-lawyer communication. As trusted advisors, lawyers are in an exceptional position to share key knowledge with clients, which may impact their decisions. Firms should ensure that employees demonstrate climate awareness when advising clients. Lawyers are integral to the highly respected legal profession. Subsequently, legal teams are best placed to advise clients on what action they must take, at a corporate level, to mitigate the effect of the climate emergency. To successfully respond to the climate emergency, firms must be prepared to challenge client’s hostility towards the alignment of business strategies with net zero. This requires employees to have an overarching knowledge of the climate crisis.

Law firms can effectuate change through every contract they draft. Firms must promote climate aligned contracting. This involves the inclusion of climate clauses in contracts, which promote eco-friendly operations and endorse climate awareness. Climate aligned contracting is in the client’s best interest. It enables businesses to take the lead by transitioning to net zero operations. This approach is unlikely to be met with resistance, as amidst the climate emergency, commercial clients are already demonstrating their commitment to tackling the climate crisis. Climate aligned contracting enables firms to deliver rapid practical action and expeditiously respond to the climate emergency, without having to wait for Government to enact laws.

Law firms must assess their clientele when responding to the climate emergency. The legal sector has the power to effectively tackle the climate crisis or markedly inhibit the movement. Many law firms represent the wrong side of this issue, with their number-one clients being leading polluters. Lawyers are hired to mitigate risks and the climate emergency is an imperative risk that they must make clients aware of. In their response to the climate emergency, law firms have been seen to withdraw from representing clients who are opposed to net zero operations. Encouraging client decisions which are injurious to our planet will undoubtedly be met with distaste from society. This would negatively impact the reputation of a firm and the legal profession. Firms should consider implementing policy which permits refusal of representation for pro-pollution clients. They must recognise the long-term benefits which arise from this short-term discomfort.

Ultimately, law firms must produce practical responses to the climate emergency through pro-bono work, climate aligned contracting and the assessment of their clientele. Voltaire once said: ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’. Law firms must accept this responsibility and respond expeditiously to the imminent climate emergency.

By Paige Alexander, Student Advisor

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