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Law Firms and the Climate Crisis - Jodi Coffman

Climate change is undoubtedly a major threat to society and the economy with rising temperatures and extreme weather events becoming more frequent due to the unsustainable levels of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. The Paris Climate Agreement proposed an aim of below 2 degrees total warming and ideally limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. However, if emissions continue rising at the current rates, temperatures may reach 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, causing irreversible damage to the environment, society, and economies. Law firms have a responsibility to play their part in reducing emissions and promoting eco-friendly practices to their employees and clients. However, it is important to question whether many of these law firms are enacting these policies for genuine reasons or whether it is just greenwashing? This article will compare the approaches of two major law firms to environmental sustainability and question whether it is genuine or just a PR front.

Many large international firms including those in the Magic Circle have implemented targeted environmental policies to improve their own impact on the environment. For example, Clifford Chance have a responsible business programme which has a section on Environmental Social Governance (ESG), aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. On the surface this seems positive and metrics such as the 27.9 percent reduction in paper usage and 28.42 percent reduction in carbon dioxide use in 2019/2020 does suggest they are moving in the right direction. However, the website pages about their own efforts to be more sustainable link straight to their legal expertise in this area, suggesting that the main motivation for environmental sustainability is to build capabilities in this area of law and subsequently to make profit. For example, they advise clients on energy-transition related opportunities, climate change risk mitigation and aspects of sustainable finance such as green bonds. Their motivation for environmental policy is because sustainability is ‘an important issue for our clients’ which suggests that their aim is really just to win new business and retain their client base. Does the firm itself actually care about ESG or is it just a way to build their business? This can be seen as a form of greenwashing which is a “profit or brand-enhancing ‘environmental rhetoric’ by individual firms despite neutral or even negative CSR commitments”. By promoting their firm as environmentally aware, Clifford Chance is able to maintain support and status within the legal sector. However, just because the firm itself may not prioritise the environment, this does not mean that their work helping clients will not be of benefit. Using their expertise to help firms with green bonds will increase investment in sustainable commercial activity and supporting clients through energy transitions away from fossil fuels will reduce greenhouse gases.

Looking at Baker McKenzie we can see a different focus for their environmental strategy, although they also provide services to help clients manage risk and drive growth in a sustainable way. However, sustainability is at the core of Baker McKenzie’s strategy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals integrated within their strategy. For example, they launched their B-Green strategy which is an internal programme helping their offices to ‘green’ their operations by providing a tailored roadmap for each office to follow. Not only do they want to support their clients’ business but promise to do this alongside preserving their ‘commitments to our people, our communities and our planet’. They even conducted surveys and interviews with over 1400 internal and external stakeholders across the world to see which issues matter most to them. This inclusive method reflects the firms genuine commitment to sustainability as something they actually care about rather than just a business strategy. Baker McKenzie was also the only Band 1 ranked Firm for Climate Change for the 13th consecutive year by Chamber’s students indicating their dedication to these principles.

What is important however, is where law firms go from here. Will they put sustainability at the heart of their strategy like Baker McKenzie or merely use it as a marketing strategy to retain and attract clients? However, in light of COP26 it is possible that more law firms will see it as vital that they make the environment a focus and any future government policy may give firms no choice but to reduce emissions.


World Meteorological Organisation Global Climate Change in 2015-2019 : Climate Change Accelerates

Clifford Chance Environment and Sustainability

Baker McKenzie Global Sustainability Report 2021

Chambers Students Environment in London (Firms) Legal Rankings

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