Big firms to assess impact of their advice on climate change

Climate change: Law firms make joint commitment

A group of eight major law firms have pledged to “understand the impact” of their advice on climate change and raised the possibility of not acting in matters that increase global warming.

The Legal Charter 1.5 has been launched only a few weeks after a report called out many large UK law firms for playing an “indispensable role” in supporting the fossil fuel industry and eco-campaign group Lawyers Are Responsible began urging big firms to cease acting on fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

The charter at its heart accepts the need to restrict global warming to no more than 1.5°C by 2030 – what it calls the ‘Global Imperative’.

Announced ahead of London Climate Action Week, the signatories to date are Taylor Wessing, Bates Wells, DWF, Osborne Clarke, DLA Piper, Mischon de Reya, Gowling WLG and Clyde & Co.

Six more firms – Ashurst, Pinsent Masons, Freshfields, Simmons & Simmons, Slaughter & May and Hogan Lovells – are “engaged” with the charter as “dialogue partners”, having contributed to its drafting.

One of the principles is a joint commitment to developing “a robust methodology to measure the impact of our advice upon the Global Imperative”.

The firms will then work to apply that methodology “as soon as practically possible” to understand the impact of each firm’s advice on emissions globally, “inform our approach to contribute to the Global Imperative, including via our firm’s advice, and support our work with our clients to achieve the Global Imperative”.

The firms commit to engage with clients, “where appropriate”, to understand how they are addressing the need to transition away from high-emitting activities this challenge “and how we may support them”.

It describes a potential project for doing this: “Achieving consensus as to appropriate requirements in relation to incepting clients and matters in both contentious and non-contentious scenarios, in conformity with all applicable laws and regulations, but keeping the Global Imperative in mind.

“However, there is scope for collective action to set standards for ceasing to act in respect of matters where that outcome cannot be achieved.”

Guidance issued by the Law Society in April confirmed that solicitors have a wide discretion in choosing whether to accept instructions, with climate change a valid consideration in this.

The charter’s principles also cover leadership, promoting reforms and influencing public policy, education and upskilling staff, focused pro bono – with a potential pledge to commit a million hours – and “meaningful offsetting”, possibly doing so collectively.

Shane Gleghorn, managing partner at Taylor Wessing, said: “The legal sector has a key role to play in delivering a safe climate. That objective requires a high level of ambition by the participant firms to achieve clear and measurable goals.

“The charter enables firms to set those goals by reference to a concise set of implementable principles that assist them to review and audit their progress. Importantly, while that framework encourages, where possible, collaboration with other firms and climate organisations, it also recognises the important of each firm working with their clients to achieve the objective.”

Dr Thom Wetzer, associate professor of law and finance at Oxford University, commented: “The legal profession has the potential to do tremendous good and it can be part of the solution to the climate crisis. That is why the launch of this Legal Charter is such a welcome step forward. It will allow law firms to share expertise with those seeking to improve the current system.

“The legal profession needs new standards – from investment management agreements that account for green preferences, to sustainability-linked bonds and contracts-for-difference in the hydrogen market. Investors need guidance and policymakers require training.

“Committing time and expertise to that cause, if well-directed, can rid us of obstacles that currently hold back the net-zero transition.”

Separately, Mishcon de Reya has partnered with organisations the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme at Oxford University to launch the Climate Science and Law Forum.

It is a “response to findings from scientists that climate litigation is often determined by erroneous, misinterpreted or outdated science”.

The forum aims to “strengthen the conversation” between climate litigators and climate scientists so that strategic climate litigation has a better prospect of success.

Alexander Rhodes, a partner and head of Mishcon Purpose, said: “Climate litigation will only be effective in addressing critical questions regarding responsibility and accountability if emerging science is well understood.”

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