Why lawyers should be thinking about sustainable development

A guest post by Yasmin Batliwala MBE, chief executive officer of Advocates for International Development

Batliwala: Legal professionals play a key role

If you haven’t come across ‘sustainability’ in your day-to-day work beyond paper-free offices or environmental policies and processes, then you are probably missing out on how the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been permeating all aspects of the legal profession – from their impact on everyday clients, to their relevance for big businesses.

The SDGs are also carefully considered as part of the public policy commitments upon which new laws and regulations are made, both in the global North and South.

The OECD just published its latest report The short and winding road to 2030: Measuring distance to the SDG targets, which looks at progress against ambitions for poverty reduction; enhanced equality, diversity and inclusion; and strengthened public trust in our institutions.

These are all critical issues emerging against a post-Covid landscape. The verdict is very concerning: OECD countries have only met, or come close to meeting, a quarter of the targets set.

With the SDG agenda covering 17 cross-cutting goals – including access to healthcare and the protection of people, long-term economic prosperity, environmental conservation, public-private partnerships and a focus on achieving peace – its targets intersect with every existing area of law.

As an example, target 10.3 calls for the elimination of discriminatory laws, policies and practices. Target 8.7 calls for the eradication of forced labour, modern day slavery and human trafficking. And target 16.3 calls for the promotion of rule of law at the national and international levels and the safeguarding of equal access to justice for all.

All of these targets aim to secure a stable environment in which public sector institutions can be held accountable for their actions; private sector arrangements can be sustained with certainty; and individual human rights can be safeguarded.

Legal professionals play a key role against this framework. As guardians of the administration of justice, they encourage the observance not just of ‘hard’ law, but also the growing body of regulatory guidance and other ‘soft laws’ that exist.

This includes, for example, increased interest on behalf of legal services regulators on issues relating to sustainable development.

Indeed, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has voiced an interest in contributing to thought leadership, engagement and debate on environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations, including the legal sector’s response to climate and environmental change.

Last year also brought developments on related issues from wider stakeholders with the passing of the Environment Act 2021, the Competitions and Markets Authority Green Claims Code checklist, and even new policies and regulations for promoting the roll-out of electric vehicles.

All of these developments have continued despite the Covid-19 health crisis, and new developments continue to arise notwithstanding the ongoing war in Ukraine.

These crises have not hampered the will for change, but rather magnified the significance of ‘sustainability’, where not only environmental issues are essential for humanity’s future, but also a necessity for peace, prosperity, partnerships and poverty alleviation with people and the environment at the centre of those efforts.

Lawyers play a critical role in the social and business environments in their jurisdictions. They can be agents of positive social change and act as specialists in the art of advocacy, which enables them to occupy a unique position in society.

Lawyers also possess key skills relevant to furthering the SDG agenda. Familiar with navigating complex landscapes, able to balance competing interests and routinely relied upon to identify issues and solutions, legal professionals have a lot to contribute to the sustainability discourse.

In amongst wider changes taking place in the profession – the growth of lawtech, increased scrutiny for gender parity and a focus on wider commercial skills – the prevalence of sustainability brings with it new opportunities for growth in reshaping and rethinking the role of lawyers both now and into the future.

In this complex landscape, we see today that clients are increasingly expecting law firms to provide horizon-scanning functions, giving insight not just to current issues but future ones too. Risk management has moved beyond the here and now, and towards the need to forecast into the future to manage actual and potential liability.

Therefore, it is evident that legal professionals can benefit from the wider discourse of the SDG agenda: the universal blueprint against which white papers, green papers, policy development, regulatory requirements and corporate strategies are aligning.

Furthermore, through their work, lawyers are seeking to fulfil not only their personal, but also their professional, aspirations.

Consequently, it is no longer enough for legal practices and in-house legal departments to offer competitive rates of compensation and interesting work to attract and retain professionals of the highest calibre. Rather, there is little doubt that those entering the profession today also look for employers that exhibit ethical principles and social values beyond technical excellence and client service.

At Advocates for International Development (A4ID), this cross-section between law and sustainable development is clear.

Working with many top international and domestic law firms, we have been seeking to actualise this potential by creating value-driven career growth, establishing new partnerships and attitudes for effective pro bono, and empowering lawyers to play a critical role in shaping the industry of tomorrow.

By creating collaborative networks of joint learning, and dialogue exchange and innovation between legal professionals, academics, civil society organisations, government departments and corporate brands, we hope that despite there being fewer than ten years left to achieve the SDG agenda, we can rise to the challenge.

After all, name me one legal professional who hasn’t had to turn around a deadline at the very last minute?

A4ID is currently running a training programme to equip legal professionals with the tools to improve the advice given to their clients on issues relating to the SDGs. More information can be found here: https://a4id.learnworlds.com/

If you have any queries about the programme, please reach out to Naomi Cantor on naomi.cantor@a4id.org

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