Climate change “is the defining issue of this century”.ᶦ The United Nation’s landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted very alarmingly, in its 2018 report the devastating impact of climate change on the global community. Predicting approximately 12 years to keep global warming to 1.5 °c above pre-industrial levels or face radically allowing the alteration of the ecological and social fabric of the Earth.ᶦᶦ Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Fund reported in 2009 that global warming at that point was already causing 300,000 deaths and $125 billion of economic loss per year.ᶦᶦᶦ The effects are no doubt detrimental, hence the need and urgency for corporations to take accountability and focus on their own footprints individually and collectively.
Over the years, people and corporations; large and small have committed to adopting environmentally sustainable businesses, seemingly under a sense of obligation to contribute to improving the crisis. Law firms are no exception, but have these law firms fully committed to saving the environment?
A considerable amount of legal development has surfaced in favour of promoting eco- friendly practices as seen in the Chancer Lane Project, a collaborative legal effort for developing new contracts and model laws to fight climate change, of which the Law Society is also a member.ᶦᵛ This incredible initiative grew out of the London Climate Action Week 2019, now holding up to 55 leading legal firms and organisations.ᵛ
Upon reading this, one would hope that the legal sector would be one of the more sustainable practices. However, the reality could not be more different. Research suggests legal firms, the magic circle firms, are amidst the top contributors to the climate crisis. This may partly be due to the need to balance the interests of clients and the public interest in saving the planet. As a result, law firms are effectively enabling unsustainable work models and facilitating actions contrary to public policy by promoting sustainable corporate statements which do not accurately reflect the corporate truth.
Magic Circle firms such as Slaughter and May conduct significant representational work for companies exploiting fossil fuels and its advisement of Premier Oil in its North Sea expansion. Widely known climate activist group; Extinction Rebellion has protested outside their offices, accusing Slaughter and May of “slaughtering our planet”. ᵛᶦ Significantly, an overwhelming majority of the top 100 law firms “provide more support to clients driving the crisis than those addressing it.”ᵛᶦᶦ
Climate scores report for Vault 100 law firms presented that between 2015 to 2019:
(1) 286 cases actively litigated the exacerbation of climate change against 27 cases mitigating,
(2) Fossil fuel transactional work amounted to $1,316 trillion USD whilst renewable energy transactions added up to $271 billion USD and
(3) Lobbying compensation for fossil fuels went up to $37 million USD in contrast to $7 million USD for renewable energy.ᵛᶦᶦᶦ
On average, four firms received an A while twenty-six received an F ᶦˣ with many non- magic circle firms surpassing their prestigious counterparts, while magic circle firms unwittingly found themselves at the bottom of the climate score ranking. No doubt, a first for these firms which have built a reputation on valuing commercial expansion over global sustainability. Latham & Watkins, amongst others, stated their commitment to “measuring [their] environmental impact and implementing best practices” ˣ but still fell in the top 5 worst firms across transactions and litigation. ˣᶦ Are magic circle firms all they portray themselves to be or are they falling from grace?
Many students take the prestigious category of ‘Magic Circle’ into contemplation when applying to internships and schemes after law school. We in turn may duly ponder whether the prestige is worth the pollution. Alternatively, whether a new criterion ought to exist—the so-called ‘Green Circle’.
ᶦ Tim Burns, Alisa White, Karen Anderson, Camila Bustos, Scott Stern, Rachel Stryer, Lexi Smith, ‘ Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard (2020)’ (Law Students for Climate Accountability,2020) <https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5f53fa556b708446acb4dcb5/t/5f755753f217027860728759/1601525603800/Law+Firm+Climate+Change+Scorecard.pdf> 1 accessed 28 March 2021.
ᶦᶦ Joel Poultney, 'What can litigators do for the climate emergency? We consulted a group of experts to find out'(Chambers Student , 8 February 2020)<https://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/newsletter/climate-change-and-the-law> accessed 28 March 2021.
ᶦᶦᶦ Global Humanitarian Forum Geneva, ‘The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis’ (Human Impact Report Climate Change,2009) <http://www.ghf-ge.org/human-impact-report.pdf> accessed 28 March 2021.
ᶦᵛ Jonathan Goldsmith, 'Lawyers and the law heating up over climate change' (Law Gazette , 3 March 2020)<https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/commentary-and-opinion/lawyers-and-the-law-heating-up-over-climate-change/5103303.article> accessed 28 March 2021
ᵛ Nick Hilborne, ‘ Lawyers Urged to use the law to fight climate change’ ( Legal futures, 20 February 2020) <https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/lawyers-urged-to-use-the-law-to-fight-climate-change> accessed 28 March 2021.
ᵛᶦ Jemma Slingo, ‘Green campaigners lie down outside Slaughter and May’ (Law Gazette, 28 February 2020) <https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/green-campaigners-lie-down-outside-slaughter-and-may/5103272.article> accessed 28 March 2021.
ᵛᶦᶦ Joel Makower, ‘Are lawyers and accountants doing enough on climate change’ (GreenBiz, 13 October 2020) <https://www.greenbiz.com/article/are-lawyers-and-accountants-doing-enough-climate-change> accessed 28 March 2021
ᵛᶦᶦᶦ Burns et al. (n1) 7-9.
ᶦˣ Ibid, 26.
ˣ Latham & Watkins, ‘Latham Sustainability’ (Latham & Watkins LLP, 2021) <https://www.lw.com/AboutUs/LathamSustainability> accessed 28 March 2021.
ˣᶦ Burns et al. (n1) 9.