With COP26 underway, the eyes of the world are on Glasgow in search of solutions to the climate emergency. Lawyers and law firms are in powerful positions to influence positive change in a range of different ways.

It is well known that climate change disproportionately affects lower income households. Therefore, organisations have a responsibility to act on behalf of those who are unable to. Workplaces should be regarded as opportunities to create powerful change and encourage individual action through demonstrating how some of the simplest measures can have meaningful impact. For example, switching producers for ethically sourced coffee, promoting cycle-to-work schemes or public transport travel allowances. Furthermore, with the increase in home working, perhaps future employee incentives will involve greener home energy. Organisations may have to take these considerations into account when calculating the true environmental impact of their business. It would be encouraging to see more firms set their own ambitious targets or incentives for staff to be more environmentally conscious.

Law firms may not have the liberty to pick and choose clients depending on their environmental impact, but they can make progressive climate goals for their own practice. This contradiction risks superficiality, so transparency is key: short and long term approaches should be identified and publicly available. Law firms have an opportunity to cultivate a climate-conscious culture and have open discussions with staff and clients around climate change. Prioritising ESG or implementing flight limits are crucial measures, but are firms also able to demonstrate a top-down structure of individual commitment to climate change? It is this which displays genuine dedication to improving conditions and influencing work culture.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal profession proved it can adapt in times of crisis. Going forward, firms will have to be innovative in preparation for the in-house impact of climate change. For example, increased occurrence of extreme weather events preventing staff from accessing offices, limiting travel, or disrupting network connections. The devastating heatwaves in Canada over summer, or recent severe flooding across Europe illustrate how serious these risks are, and the implied impact on the workforce.

Consideration should also be given to younger generations. BBC Newsround reported that around 73% of UK school children are worried about climate change. This should not be underestimated: these are the lawyers and clients of the future. Growing up with this level of awareness will likely cause young people to think carefully about the individual impact of their chosen careers. As a result, employers may find themselves under increased scrutiny to demonstrate climate-conscious practice in order to recruit and retain staff. Furthermore, engaging in positive environmental initiatives can help reduce climate anxiety; therefore, law firms should ensure there are opportunities for new lawyers to get involved and share valuable insights. In this way, collaboration is fundamental to include staff across all levels in climate discussions. Neglecting these factors risks the legal profession losing touch with the changing workforce.

Finally, climate change impacts all of us, but it does not affect us equally. Socio-economic status, race, gender, and disability are just a few factors which contribute to how acutely the burden of climate change is experienced. For these reasons, firms should ensure that the right people are involved when making environmental decisions. This is not material: new research suggests that boards with greater gender diversity make more stringent climate policies. Gender imbalance across senior positions and lack of diversity within the legal profession is well known, but these should not be regarded as distinct issues from climate change. Environmental activist groups have learned that they have to be intersectional to be successful, similar approaches should be replicated within law firms. Perhaps firms could review the appropriateness of the people acting on environmental issues, with particular regard to lived experience. Alternatively, working groups could provide dynamic opportunities to focus on the diverse impact of climate change for more diverse solutions.

For the reasons discussed, law firms can have a significant impact on how the legal profession as a whole responds to the climate emergency. Firms can promote a culture which provides opportunities for clients and staff across all levels to continuously learn, listen and engage in climate related matters. Firms should be adaptable with senior staff willing to demonstrate sincere commitment to improving conditions. The importance of listening to varied outlooks should be recognised and diversity treated as a priority when responding to climate change. Young voices, racial perspectives, women and marginalised groups are central to understanding lived experiences and finding innovative solutions to climate challenges.


Flora Henry

Law student at the University of Dundee