How Committed is Big Law to Sustainability?

Mary Ormerod rsgi
Mary Ormerod
30 Mar 2022

In 2022 RSGI set out to define what ‘good’ means in terms of major law firm commitment (both stated and actual) to the sustainability agenda​. Our report makes recommendations for the approach law firms should take to achieve best practice in terms of sustainability commitment​. It also highlights the law firms who can serve as role models for the global legal industry​.

Big law's commitment to ESG

ESG is now ubiquitous amongst the top law firms globally. Nearly half (49%) of the top 100 firms by revenue have formal ESG practices. This number rises to 70% if committees, task forces, teams and cross-practice groups are included.

While there is a clear business case for ESG as a client-facing service, these numbers don’t clearly correlate to firm’s internal sustainability policies.

We spoke to GCs of international organisations who made it clear that they care about how their law firms perform on sustainability. There is a growing trend for companies to report on ESG performance across their ‘value chains’ as opposed to purely their supply chains, which has led clients to request more performance metrics from their service providers in areas like carbon footprint. These internal metrics are also the best proxy available to clients for measuring a law firm’s commitment to and understanding of sustainability more broadly.

RSGI on FT Innovative Lawyers North America 2021 - relevance
of the top 100 law firms by revenue publish an ESG report
17% of the top 100 law firms by revenue are signatories of the UN Global Compact
Just under a fifth of the 100 law firms have set carbon emissions reduction targets.
A smaller proportion have publicly specified a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by a stated date.​
Role Models

Commitment to sustainability is defined  in two parts: what are the firms’ policies and targets; and what is the firm publicly reporting. Clifford Chance, DLA Piper and Linklaters performed well in our assessment of  public policies, targets, and reporting on  ESG and sustainability.DWF and Uria Menendez also stood out for their detailed ESG reporting.

ESG Reports from high level firms include:

  • management buy-in to ESG as a long-term strategic priority;
  • governance of ESG strategy through a nominated ESG board or the firm’s management board;
  • long term investment in projects that will improve the firm’s environmental and social impact year on year comprehensive reporting showing yearly progress on E, S and G;
  • investment in ESG training, networks and awareness-raising to embed it firm-wide; ​
  • an intellectual curiosity to explore how ESG intersects with the running of the firm and in client facing work.
commitment to pro bono projects tackling the climate crisis

Some firms have demonstrated a significant investment in tackling climate change via pro bono efforts and accountability policies which measure the impact of commitments made. ​We define a significant commitment as one which fits the following criteria:

Significant investment: hours or money committed; environment as core part of pro bono strategy;​
Governance: dedicated individuals responsible for pro bono strategy;​

Transparency: reporting impact in terms of numbers (hours spent, projects worked on, people helped, resources saved, etc.); reporting impact through case studies describing the firm’s contributions to specific organisations and projects, including dates of when the work took place and what the outcome of the project was; inclusion of pro bono reporting in firm’s ESG or Responsible Business annual report;​

Public commitment: commitment to a collaborative venture such as the ‘Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy’ project run by Stanford Law School*; public statements about the firm’s commitment to pro bono projects tackling climate change.​

While pro bono work is a distinct area of activity, it also provides an important training ground for lawyers in ESG matters.

RSGI Recommendations
Publish a strategy not just a policy​ Produce a strategy that is led from the top and includes the entire firm​ Look at how ESG can be embedded at the firm through training and other mechanisms​ Set global targets and detailed plans for achieving them​ Empower junior lawyers and other professionals to take the initiative in seeking out projects or gaining new skills Establish a governance structure to ensure accountability for targets and plans​ Report the firm’s sustainability timeline with past and future performance​ Ensure committee oversight, either from an ESG committee or the firm’s management committee​ Report on progress using independently verified data​ Assign dedicated leadership to oversee the work
Articulate the firm’s purpose, values, code of conduct: why is the firm here?​ Publish an overarching strategy and vision built from firm’s purpose statement: how is the firm achieving its purpose?​ Go beyond the basic requirements to lead and influence the industry and clients on sustainability​ Use global standards in the firm’s strategy, looking beyond industry norms Plan for the long-term – it takes time to embed cultural and operational change​ Make detailed plans with numerical targets, bringing in outside advisers​ Publish a strategy for pro bono efforts and evaluate the firm’s impact​ Invest in training and awareness raising​ Engage formally with stakeholders and use that to build a strategy bespoke to the firm​

To understand what commitment to sustainability looks like in the legal industry, RSGI researchers compared published information on 250 global law firms. The aim was to identify best practice in terms of strategy, policy and reporting.​

RSGI looked at the top 200 global law firms by revenue (according to the the American Lawyer Global 200, 2021). Researchers identified and examined a further 50 law firms who met one of the following criteria: one of the top five largest firms in a major jurisdiction; company signatory of the UN Global Compact; strong media presence relating to ESG or sustainability matters.

Read the full RSGI Green Print report part 1 here

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