Lawyer eco-campaigners urge City giant to stop fossil fuel work

A member of Lawyers Are Responsible outside Allen & Overy’s offices on Tuesday

Climate change campaign group Lawyers Are Responsible has urged law firm giant Allen & Overy to cease acting on fossil fuel infrastructure projects and refuse any future instructions.

Members of the group have begun standing outside the firm’s London office on a weekly basis, handing out leaflets and seeking to discuss the issue with staff arriving for work “in a non-confrontational manner”.

It is the first in a series of activities aimed at the firms identified recently in a report from Law Students for Climate Accountability as the main lawyers supporting the fossil fuel industry.

Lawyers Are Responsible is a new group that shot to prominence through its Declaration of Conscience, in which signatories committed not to prosecute climate protestors or work for fossil fuel companies.

Nearly 180 practitioners, academics, students and others have so far signed it, and sparked a major debate at the Bar about the cab-rank rule.

In a statement to Legal Futures, the group said it would be targeting the other magic circle firms in future in a campaign called ‘Magic Circle Actions’.

It added that several notable US firms, in particular White & Case and Latham & Watkins, were also among the worst firms for fossil fuel transactions.

“Our work will not finish at the doors of the magic circle; they can also expect action from us soon.”

The letter to Allen & Overy senior partner Wim Dejonghe and managing partner Gareth Price noted that the report named their firm as “by far the worst offender, conducting £89bn worth of transactional work”.

It also pointed to April’s Law Society guidance, which confirmed that solicitors have a wide discretion in choosing whether to accept instructions, with climate change a valid consideration in this.

The letter said: “We suggest that the scientific consensus is clear: the first essential step that needs to be taken, in order to avoid mass loss of life and other catastrophic harm to human health and to avert the existential threat to our society, is to stop any new fossil fuel projects that expand infrastructure hence productive capacity.

“As lawyers, we all value the rule of law in ensuring that we have a fair, stable and prosperous society. In a world devastated by climate chaos, there would be a serious risk to the rule of law.”

The letter acknowledged that the request would require Allen & Overy “to take actions which may be difficult, and which will conflict with a desire to maximise short-term profits”.

But it argued that the issue had potential ramifications for the firm in a number of areas, such as reputational, regulatory and financial risk, and its ability to retain and attract both staff and other clients.

Showing “moral leadership” on climate change would enhance the firm’s reputation and standing, it went on.

“We would invite you to consider our request to withhold your services in the broad context of similar requests made historically for law firms not to act for the apartheid regime in South Africa or not to act for cigarette manufacturers.”

The group also suggested it was “reasonably likely” that the Solicitors Regulation Authority “will in the near future review transactional work supporting new fossil fuel projects in relation to whether it is a breach of your professional obligations”.

It identified four of the SRA principles as potentially engaged: upholding the rule of law, upholding public trust and confidence, acting with integrity, and acting in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion.

The letter argued that there were “significant systemic financial risks presented by the fossil fuel sector”, with the “inevitable” transition to a low-carbon economy likely to hit companies in the sector hard and fast.

“Allen & Overy is exposed to these financial risks in several ways. First, in its ability to recover monies on work billed to clients in the fossil fuel sector.

“Secondly, in its financial planning based on work-in-progress currently recorded and expected to be billed in due course, as well as in estimates and projections regarding the profitability of the law firm moving forwards, which (presumably) is based on continuing to accept instructions on new fossil fuel projects.”

Lawyers Are Responsible noted that the Employment Appeal Tribunal has said a commitment to tackling the climate and ecological crises could amount to a philosophical belief under equality law.

“Allen & Overy’s associates may lawfully take the position of refusing to accept work on new fossil fuel projects and cannot be subjected to discrimination, harassment or victimisation.”

The potential to lose clients opposed to fossil fuel projects “will no doubt be of concern to the equity partnership at large”, the letter added, “particularly when considering the firm’s business model as a whole and the relatively small part in it that this unsustainable work would represent moving forwards”.

Allen & Overy had no comment on the letter, including whether it would – as requested – reply, or the action being taken outside its offices.

In a tweet after doing so on Tuesday, Lawyers Are Responsible said: “We spoke about issues to employees & got a good reception.”

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