Law firms “cannot afford to ignore” human rights any longer, a member of a group set up to advise firms on adopting UN rights principles has urged, while another member reported corporate clients were demanding that firms examine their own ethical credentials.
Shanta Martin, a solicitor in Leigh Day’s international and group claims department, called for more to be done by law firm partnerships and managers to educate their employees. She added that firms should consider it an obligation to influence clients to improve their respect for human rights as well.
Ms Martin is a member of a newly-formed Law Society advisory group on business and human rights issues, which was set up to advise firms on implementing UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – adopted in June 2011. The group will report on how best the society can educate and offer practical guidance to firms on incorporating human rights into a legal context.
She said smaller firms that believed the UN principles were irrelevant to their business were mistaken.
Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) partner and director of risk, Nicole Bigby, also a member of the advisory group, said it was major corporate clients in sectors such as oil and gas and mining which were putting pressure on law firms to scrutinise their own “ethical supply chain”.
She argued that firms must look closely at their supplier arrangements as well as the way they run their own businesses.
Ms Martin, who has worked for Amnesty International and Oxfam, said: “While the UN principles may seem new, the issue of business and human rights has been around for quite some time. There is now an increased awareness from many law firms but more needs to be done. Lawyers cannot afford to sit on their hands, believing it is not relevant to them and hoping that it goes away.
“Having a statement from the partnership of what they expect of their employees and themselves as a business is an important thing – whether or not it is necessary to have a formal document is something of a challenge for smaller law firms.”
Ms Bigby said: “The more difficult challenge is what the guidelines mean for lawyers advising clients. How they deliver services and reconciling that with their ethical professional obligations of upholding the rule of law, upholding justice and maintaining client confidence.
“These are difficult issues for the profession to work through in order to integrate the human rights principles in the context of their own businesses.”
Ms Bigby said international firms working in challenging jurisdictions were already considering and addressing human rights issues as part of a broader reputation risk management strategy.
Legal Futures reported earlier this month on magic circle firms breaking new ground by developing stand-alone human rights policies. 
The Law Society has claimed to be the first Bar association in the world to review the approach of the legal services sector to the UN principles. President Nick Fluck identified the challenge of abiding by the principles while adhering to professional codes of conduct as “crucial” to the debate.
He said: “The guiding principles are not yet very well known or understood in the legal profession, indicating there is a greater need for training and education.
“While the guiding principles do not impose legal obligations on companies, they are increasingly being reflected and referred to in law, regulation and bilateral contracts.”