Law firms “need to show commitment to human rights” in how they operate

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By Legal Futures

16 November 2011


UN: law firms need to “know and show” that they are respecting human rights

Law firms need to have a “publicly available, high-level policy commitment to respect human rights”, a leading legal charity has claimed.

Advocates for International Development (A4ID) is now poised to draft a model policy for the profession to help comply with new UN human rights guidelines.

In a new report, A4ID said that while law firms played an active role in developing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were brought in earlier this year, and are already advising clients on their application, there is a need to analyse how the principles apply to law firms as businesses.

Under the guidelines, all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights and prevent any abuses in which they could be directly or indirectly involved. They have to “know and show” that they are respecting human rights throughout their operations.

Professor John Ruggie, the UN Secretary General’s special representative on business and human rights, said: “Law firms can have significant impacts on human rights through their operations and the services they render.

“Like all other business enterprises, firms should respect human rights in alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This creates both challenges and opportunities for firms.”

In September A4ID met with eight leading law firms – Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith, Hogan Lovells, Kirkland & Ellis, Reed Smith, Simmons & Simmons and White & Case – to discuss the ramifications of the principles.

However, A4ID said that it appears none of the world’s largest law firms offers “a publicly available, high-level policy commitment to respect human rights in the management of its business” and very few firms “meaningfully communicate” human rights issues to affected stakeholders.

“Firms are just beginning to grapple with the fact that, as businesses, they have their own responsibilities not to infringe on human rights through their own operations and through their business relationships,” the report said.

A4ID said law firms need to scrutinise human rights issues internally and externally. As such, the firms involved in the A4ID debate said they saw a “critical need” for them to have an overarching, high-level human rights policy, strongly supported by senior management as well as improve due diligence and guidance on how to deal with human rights.

Issues include how a working structure based on the billable hour fits into human rights employment guidelines, how a firm can avoid being viewed as complicit if a client or supplier – such as an legal outsourcing company abroad – is involved in a breach, what to do if a breach by a client or supplier is discovered, and where human rights guidance sits in relation to professional duties.

Other potential hurdles include the growing trend to “name and shame” law firms that work for clients that some campaigners feel could be ethically dubious.

Yasmin Batliwala, chief executive of A4ID, said: “A4ID hopes this new paper will ensure law firms are able to lead the way as responsible businesses.”

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