Which firms believe in climate change and take meaningful action?

By Jerome Doraisamy|12 December 2019

NSW continues to burn, and Australians are demanding greater action from businesses in combating the devastating and irreparable effects of climate change. Here, Lawyers Weekly explores which large law firms are on the front foot.

The science of climate change has long been settled. The only debate around its veracity exists in the political realm and in the vacuous black hole of Facebook comment sections.

NSW has lost over two million hectares of land to bushfire in recent months. The state’s koala population has been ravaged, accelerating the predicted extinction of our beloved national species. And, residents of Sydney and other locations across the state have been living with, and breathing in, dangerously hazardous smoke which has engulfed us in seemingly apocalyptic scenes.

I captured such a scene at 7:30AM on Tuesday morning, on my street in Lavender Bay. That photo accompanies this story.

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According to the Climate Council, scientists have been warning us for over 20 years that climate change could and would increase the risk of extreme bushfires in Australia. “This warning was accurate”, the council submitted, noting that the unprecedented fire conditions currently affecting NSW and areas of Queensland have been aggravated by climate change.

Overwhelmingly, Australians not only accept that climate change is real but are demanding that practical, substantive steps be taken to combat its deleterious effects upon our natural environment.

The Ethics Index 2019, published recently by Governance Institute of Australia, found that 47 per cent of Australians say there is an “urgent ethical obligation” to take action and 43 per cent said there is a “slight ethical obligation”. Only 10 per cent of Australians say there is no ethical obligation at all. On the question of responsibility for taking such action, 90 per cent said the federal government, state governments, Australian businesses and multinational corporations have an urgent ethical obligation to respond to climate change.

Yesterday, Lawyers Weekly reported that the board of Sydney Law School has unanimously voted to declare a climate emergency, citing the important role that legal academics have to play in advocating for needed change.

Sydney-based boutique Marque Lawyers is also particularly vocal about the environment: managing partner Michael Bradley regularly tweets on the subject, including yesterday’s scathing indictment against our elected representatives: “It is beyond idiotic that our fire services are forced to beg the public for the adequacy of funding that they are being denied by the government, because the government is ideologically opposed to admitting there’s a problem at all,” Mr Bradley tweeted.

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Mr Bradley has previously spoken about the importance of law firms being politically active: “law firms, and lawyers generally, have really substantial power to influence debate and help make change happen. We create and maintain the law, so it’s our thing,” he told us last year. 

In light of all this, we decided to check in on almost three dozen firms in the “big end of town” to see who believes that action is required and who is taking such action.

What we asked law firms

Lawyers Weekly reached out to 35 large firms in Australia with four questions:

  1. What is your firm’s response to the findings from the Ethics Index that 90 per cent of Australians see an urgent ethical obligation for businesses such as law firms to act on climate change?
    2. Does your firm accept the settled science of climate change on the natural environment, as well as the man-made contributing factors?
    3. How does your firm advocate for or assist in the protection of the natural environment, if at all?
    4. Assuming your firm is environmentally active, why is it important, in your firm’s opinion, for legal institutions to step up and take such action?

At the time of filling this story, the following firms had not responded to our questions: Colin Biggers & Paisley, DWF, Gadens, HBA Legal, HWL EbsworthKing & Wood Mallesons, McCullough Robertson and Norton Rose Fulbright.

Allens and K&L Gates opted not to respond to our questions, but instead directed us to web links espousing their respective efforts with clients and in-house initiatives on sustainability.

Johnson Winter & Slattery, Maddocks, MinterEllison and Piper Alderman all declined to participate in any capacity.

Other firms, however, did provide answers to our questions.

What is your firm’s response to the findings from the Ethics Index that 90 per cent of Australians see an urgent ethical obligation for businesses such as law firms to act on climate change?

Just eight of the 35 firms approached responded to this query.

Clifford Chance said the Ethics Index findings were “certainly consistent” with its own research about action being taken by boards of global companies.

“Organisations that take limited steps in mitigation risk severe consequences: from reputational damage to litigation,” said partner Satbir Walia.

“Consequently, environmental impact is accelerating up the boardroom agenda with intensifying discussions and a willingness to accept accountability. Words are not enough – investment and action must follow.”

The findings were unsurprising, LegalVision said, noting that businesses have an influential role to play in reducing emissions.

“Companies operating in commercial office buildings generally use about 40-50 per cent of the energy required for the whole building. Law firms who are commercial tenants have a huge opportunity to improve day-to-day energy and waste efficiency. Beyond operational changes, businesses must advocate for aggressive and urgent climate change action,” it said.

Swaab managing partner Mary Digiglio said it should not take 85-odd active bush and grass fires across NSW for those leading Australia to accept we have a climate change catastrophe brewing.

“Climate change has been on the agenda of most Australians for over 10 years. As the Ethics Index reveals a significant proportion of Australians considers action on climate change is an ‘urgent’ ethical obligation for organisations, Swaab supports the overwhelming voice of Australians on the issue and urgency of the need for climate change action,” she posited.

Clayton Utz partner Brendan Bateman mused that the topic of climate change has “certainly evolved”.

“What was once a niche area of importance to a small few, is now a widespread issue recognised on a global scale. Multinational companies, government and individuals are more aware of the impacts of climate change and are committed to seeing improved outcomes with respect to climate change,” he said.

Lander & Rogers chief executive partner Genevieve Collins said the firm’s board and partners are “committed to urgent reform”.

“This is consistent with the feedback we are getting from our people. Climate change is something they care deeply about and are looking to us to act on,” she responded.

“As we aim to be an industry leader in implementing sustainable business practices, we’ve committed to making a positive change and holding ourselves accountable.”

G+T also noted that it was “unsurprised” by the findings, and Bakers responded that climate change is “one of the most pressing issues facing humanity”. McCabe Curwood responded to the findings by saying “we take this very seriously and implement environmentally conscious initiatives wherever we can”.

Does your firm accept the settled science of climate change on the natural environment, as well as the man-made contributing factors?

In response to this question, only 12 of the 35 firms approached answered directly one way or the other:

  • Baker McKenzie: “Yes. In fact, we have recently adopted carbon targets for the organisation and will be working on our climate change strategy over the next 12 months,” said a firm spokesperson.
  • Clayton Utz: “Yes.” 
  • Gilbert + Tobin: “Yes, G+T accepts the preponderance of the scientific evidence as to the impact of climate change on the natural environment, as well as the anthropogenic contributing factors,” said a firm spokesperson.
  • Hall & Wilcox: “While we don’t have a formal stated firm position, I think that the science on climate change is unequivocal and I believe that this is supported by the firm,” said managing partner Tony Macvean. 
  • Lander & Rogers: “Yes.”
  • LegalVision: “Yes. The scientific evidence is now overwhelming, and an urgent response is required,” said a firm spokesperson. 
  • Maurice Blackburn: “Unprecedented climate events are being felt across the country and the world, and Maurice Blackburn sees climate change as a real issue that must be acted on with urgency,” said CEO Jacob Varghese.
  • McCabe Curwood: “Yes, and we are shaping our practices to minimise our own impact (using smart power systems for lighting and non-essential equipment, removing disposable products, double-sided printing, etc,” said COO Marc Walker. 
  • Mills Oakley: “The science of climate change – and particularly the impact of human activity on climate – has long been settled. We accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on this point,” said CEO John Nerurker. 
  • Shine Lawyers: “[The firm] accepts the science on climate change and believes everyone has a role to play in addressing this urgent issue,” said a firm spokesperson. 
  • Slater and Gordon: “While we respect the right of our people to form their own views, there is no doubt we are seeing very drastic swings in weather which are leading to devastation for our ecology and many people, and we need to take action around the resilience of our planet and the protection of our people,” said a firm spokesperson. 
  • Swaab: “From my personal perspective, climate change has been on the firm’s agenda as a ‘real life issue for all’. I have been accepting of the science of climate change for years as well as the manner in which humans contribute to the issue,” said managing partner Mary Digiglio.

How does your firm advocate for or assist in the protection of the natural environment, if at all?

On this query, firms offered comprehensive insight into their respective activities and initiatives addressing environmental concerns. For brevity’s sake, not all such answers are listed here, but effort has been made to showcase select actions listed by all firms who answered.

Strikes:

LegalVision proclaimed to be a “passionate advocate” for action on climate change: “The firm supported the global climate strike in September with a majority of team members taking part to demand stronger and immediate action from the government on climate change,” it said.

Maurice Blackburn said something similar: “We have been proud to encourage and support our employees to join recent climate strike movements if they choose to, something we will continue to do.”

Australian Legal Sector Alliance and other memberships:

Clayton Utz, DLA Piper, G+T, Sparke Helmore and Swaab all pointed to their membership of AusLSA, which works collaboratively with member firms to improve sustainability across the sector. All said firms are required to publicly report on their environmental performances and take active steps to reduce environmental impact.

Allen & Overy referenced a different group: "As part of [our efforts], which will require constant review and advancement in the years to come, we measure and report our performance across our global network of offices to remain committed to preventing pollution, protecting the environment and improving environmental performance. This is underpinned by our membership of the UK and Australian Legal Sector Alliances, a collective effort by law firms to take action to improve the environmental sustainability of their operations and activities."

Sustainability strategies and firm policies:

Herbert Smith Freehills said it launched a global sustainability strategy three years ago, which has seen 80 per cent of its global network become “single-use plastic-free” – 100 per cent is not too far-off, it added.

“We focus on sustainability in the broadest sense. This is good for our clients, our people and our community. That approach is independent of the climate change debate as it focuses on better behaviours like producing less carbon. These are good behaviours and outcomes we wish to encourage,” it submitted.

Shine Lawyers also noted it is “in the process of developing” an official sustainability policy which will be finalised in the new year, as did Slater and Gordon, which said it is establishing “an employee-led” sustainability policy, allowing employees to align their personal values with those of the business”.

Dentons said it is currently reshaping its Environmental Management System Framework “to implement specific measures and targets to reduce our most significant environmental impacts”.

Speaking more broadly, the firm said it “regularly gathers and records data regarding energy consumption; the percentage of energy sourced from renewable sources; travel consumption, including flights and vehicle use; paper consumption; and waste production”.

McCabes noted that its CSR strategy is evolving and that “environmental concerns are very much on our radar”.

Client concerns:

For Clyde & Co – which said it represents clients on a range of climate risk management issues – client needs come “first and foremost”.

“Our primary concern is to ensure our clients are ahead of the curve with any regulatory and legislative requirements around climate change, risk management and the environment,” said partner Jacinta Studdert.

“We are receiving client mandates to respond to climate change risk management, which suggests that the climate risk is genuine and being borne out by commercial realities.”

Ashurst also said the firm has noted climate change issues becoming more “normalised” as business concerns, and as a result, partner John Briggs said, clients are integrating such concerns into their strategic thinking and general business management.

“We work closely with our clients to understand how this impacts right across their business and collaborate among our teams ensuring we remain very well placed to provide climate-related advice from all of our practice groups, and to all of our clients’ industries and sectors,” he said.

Other initiatives:

Bakers pointed to its efforts on the 10 Deserts Project – the “largest conservation project in the world” – which addresses threats to such areas and their inhabitants and looks to preserve Indigenous cultures and lands for future generations.

Clifford Chance said its environmental focus centers around access to finance, justice, education and community partnerships.

“We are currently partnering with the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice in New York on an ambitious project for the UN special rapporteur for human rights and the environment, Dr David Boyd,” Australian managing partner Richard Gordon explained.

“The project involves the firm conducting and coordinating, on a pro bono basis, a global mapping survey to determine which countries recognise a human right to a healthy environment in their domestic law – the findings of which the UN special rapporteur will use in support of a future report to the UN Human Rights Council.”

DLA Piper said the firm is a “proud” signatory of the United Nations Global Compact, a non-binding resolution for global businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies.

Lander & Rogers pointed to its environment committee, which “is responsible for ensuring our people’s awareness of our goals and accountability, and [has] committed to openly communicating our [board-approved environment policy] and progress towards goals to our people, clients and community on a regular basis”.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth and Hall & Wilcox also mentioned their environment committees, with the latter saying, “runs awareness events, recycling training and other activities in support of sustainability initiatives”. Moreover, the firm said it acts pro bono for the Conservation Ecology Centre.

Corrs, G+T and Mills Oakley all said they are tenants of – on the basis of energy consumption – highly rated office buildings.

LegalVision said it has “wiped out” disposable coffee cups in the office, giving all employees a KeepCup “on their first day”.

Clyde & Co has recently launched two major reports on climate change resilience, it noted, “demonstrating our commitment to the issue”. These reports were Great Barrier Reef Report and its Hong Kong Resilient Cities Report.

Additionally, almost all firms who responded to this query noted their workplace processes electronic filing, printing, recycling and related tasks had evolved to be more environmentally conscious.

Assuming your firm is environmentally active, why is it important, in your firm’s opinion, for legal institutions to step up and take such action?

Leadership from the legal profession is critical, numerous firms agreed. Accountability, G+T added, is folded into this.

“We believe it is important for all organisations, including legal institutions, to be accountable for their impacts and to take steps to minimise or offset their carbon footprint,” it said.

With societal leadership comes obligation, argued Swaab’s Ms Digiglio: “The legal industry has critical mass, a degree of influence, a social conscience and an ethical obligation at large, which we ought to leverage to promote responsibility.”

Clifford Chance partner Nadia Kalic also pointed to such a duty, saying that “we are rightly held to higher standards and that includes our wider commitments to act as a responsible business, including in respect of the environment”.

Lander & Rogers Ms Collins also supported this, saying “We are conscious of our connections and our ability to drive behavioural change and increase environmental awareness”.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth head of business and human rights Phoebe Wynn-Pope argued that “it is important for us as a firm to step up and take action where it is possible to do so, and we are actively doing what we can to reduce our emissions”.

Herbert Smith Freehills said: “All organisations should ensure that they are minimising their impact on the environment and the communities in which they operate. Legal institutions are no exception.”

Sparke Helmore offered a similar sentiment, noting that such action is important for all professional institutions: “We are all part of the community and have to be prepared to take action to support the environment in which our people live and work.”

DLA Piper managing partner Amber Matthews mused: “In a world facing the tangible effects of climate change, we believe businesses must demonstrate that it is a force for positive, sustainable change.”

Dentons agreed: “Everyone, businesses and individuals alike, has a shared responsibility to reduce their impact on the environment and help preserve it for future generations.”

For Hall & Wilcox’s Mr Macvean, it is important for law firms to take a leadership role.

“It is also important to our people (and, we think, many of our clients) that we have an active voice on this issue. All businesses have an obligation to act and show leadership on climate change,” he proclaimed.

A&O made the same argument: "Allen & Overy understands that as a leading international law firm, we have a responsibility to protect the natural environment for current and future generations and to rise to the challenges currently before us."

McCabe Curwood COO Marc Walker stressed the importance of collaboration with the broader business community.

“There is a collective imperative to make efforts with our scale and buying power to reduce the environmental impact that we all have. These developments up and down the supply chain can have a significant bearing on improved outcomes and even modest changes to the way law firms operate can see great momentum in the change agenda,” he said.

There is also an imperative to engage with the values of one’s clients, LegalVision argued: “With an issue as far-reaching and consequential as climate change, [clients] demand more than a solidarity social media post from a firm”.

Slaters said it has a “long and proud history” of supporting community activism and campaigns for meaningful social change.

“Like many businesses, we also recognise that we can make an effective contribution to improving our environment through direct action and advocacy on these issues,” it said.

Bakers supported this, saying: “Our various stakeholders want to know that we are part of the solution, and public targets are a way to clearly and tangibly demonstrate our commitments.”

“We would encourage other legal institutions to take the same approach.”

Conclusion

While many firms were keen to trumpet their initiatives to sustain the natural environment and assist clients in in effectively managing their businesses in the wake of the flow-on effects of climate change, it was interesting to see how few of the 35 firms approached were willing to directly respond to the Governance Institute’s findings and/or acknowledge the settled science on the broader matter. There are, without doubt, commendable initiatives being undertaken by our firms across the board, but Australians perceive a need for, and indeed demand, more.

In an age where Australians are crying out for greater action from governments, businesses and multinational corporations, Lawyers Weekly will be keeping an eye on the advocacy or otherwise of firms in this space.

Photo: Jerome Doraisamy (taken in Lavender Bay, at 7:30AM on Tuesday 10 December 2019). 

Which firms believe in climate change and take meaningful action?
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