At least one London law firm is allowing its young lawyers to refuse to act for “big emitters” of pollution, it has emerged.
However, Law Society council member Jonathan Goldsmith, who did not name the firm, said he believed the profession as a whole was “very far” from refusing to act for polluters.
Speaking at a Law Society of Scotland’s conference in Glasgow on Friday ahead of this week’s Cop26 event in the city, Mr Goldsmith, former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, said opinion on climate change among solicitors south of the border was divided.
As an example, he cited the debate on a climate change resolution published by the Law Society of England and Wales last week, which agreed, among other things, to “support solicitors to be fully informed on how they might act to mitigate the climate crisis”.
Mr Goldsmith told a panel session on how the legal profession should respond to the ethical issues raised by climate change that some at Chancery Lane were “unhappy” with the resolution, because they felt it amounted to interfering with the principle of independent legal advice.
“The point of the resolution is to urge solicitors to do something. We’re not a regulator – we’re not in a position to instruct.
“It’s an urging, not an interference with legal advice, but it was really fraught and some people think even that goes too far.”
Mr Goldsmith said “the aim of everything the profession should do” on climate change was to avoid regulation by the government.
He said inaction by the profession on both tax evasion and money laundering had resulted in government regulation.
“We have to act urgently. Professional bodies have a duty to raise the issue of climate change. They should steer the profession towards climate consciousness.”
Speaking at the same session, former Supreme Court justice Lord Carnwath said judges should be “active, but not activists” on climate change, which was an “important distinction”.
Lord Carnwath said it was important for judges to approach cases objectively and “not to be seen to be stretching the law” in reaching their decisions.
He recounted how he had been described by right-wing US website Breitbart News as a “dangerous environmental activist”.
However, despite his involvement in environmental matters, nobody in the UK had ever suggested “this should disqualify me from sitting on the Supreme Court or any court”.
Kyle Lischak, solicitor and head of UK at charity ClientEarth, said when in the past he had raised environmental issues as an in-house lawyer, he found he was “pushing at an open door”.
He went on: “The trend should be for bold lawyers to do more. If that means not taking instructions from some entities, then so be it.”
He said the talent coming through to NGOs from some of the top law firms was “amazing”, with “real choices” being made about lifestyles and incomes.
In a later session on the ‘climate conscious lawyer’, Tim Crosland, solicitor and director of climate change charity Plan B, said the common law idea of “slow, incremental progress” was “in our DNA”, but “radicalism is what the situation demands”.
He added that “transformational change” would come about only through “collective action” and not “individual adjustments”.
Mr Crosland became the first person to be found in contempt of the Supreme Court earlier this year when he was fined £5,000 for releasing a draft version of the court’s ruling on the planned third runway for Heathrow airport. He has appealed the decision.
The Law Society resolution urges solicitors to take the lead in developing a “climate-conscious approach” to their daily practice – in so far as it is compatible with their professional duties and the administration of justice – and includes a Law Society commitment to “develop plans and take rapid action to reduce global warming by adopting science-based targets for our operations”.
It also encourages law firms to develop career paths for lawyers “who wish to transition into distinct disciplines related to climate change” and engage in pro bono activities to support efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said: “Solicitors and law firms need to prepare for how the consequences of the climate crisis will affect them and contribute to the global drive to transition to net-zero.
“This includes identifying climate change related risks and greener courses of action, as well as reducing the greenhouse gases associated with running any business.”
The Law Society is calling on solicitors and law firms to publicly endorse the resolution and follow its guidance.
Meanwhile, the Forum of Insurance Lawyers (FOIL) has created a charter, now signed by all of its 42 UK law firm members, pledging to support the insurance industry with “legal advice, innovation and empathy” in the continued effort to tackle climate change.
FOIL chief executive Laurence Besemer said: “As an industry organisation, we believe that one of the greatest tools for generating positive change is the voice of the many, rather than the few.”
Finally, London property and private wealth law firm Forsters has committed to a science-based target of reducing its emissions by 50% by 2030, starting from a baseline year of 2019.
At the same time, the firm has become only the third law firm to join the Business Declares movement, which means formally recognising the climate emergency.
Forsters has been carbon neutral since 2007 but said it wanted to move beyond offsetting its own emissions.
The firm is working with the Achilles carbon reduce programme – UK’s only accredited greenhouse gas certification scheme – and will be submitting its target for validation by the Science Based Target initiative, which gives companies science-based certification of their net-zero targets.
Kelly Noel-Smith, corporate social responsibility partner at Forsters, said: “We feel passionately as a firm that collaboration with our immediate stakeholders and the wider business community is fundamental to bringing the necessary change to limit the worst effects of global warming.
“We understand the importance of businesses of all sizes taking action to address climate change, and we are proud to be one of the first law firms of our size to commit to these ambitious science-based targets.”
Bates Wells and Brabners are the other two firms that have signed up to Business Declares. Martin Bunch, the managing partner of Bates Wells, will be talking about this and his firm’s other commitments to being socially responsible at the Legal Futures Innovation Conference on 16 November.