Following on from the first part of my blog, which was inspired by the question, ‘what role could lawyers possibly play in combating climate change?’ in the run up to the next round of global climate talks in Peru in December, I’ll now look a little closer to home for some answers.

First and foremost, law firms are people businesses. The legal sector is a significant employer globally and our workforce is our principal asset. What we are witnessing now, more than ever, is that our people, especially our younger lawyers, care passionately about the future of our planet and want to be part of an organization that shares their concerns.  In a very modern trend, having a responsible and sustainable business model is now a key factor in recruiting and retaining the best talent – and I’m sure that’s not unique to the legal profession.

The same goes for the other principal stakeholders in our business, our clients, who are increasingly seeking suppliers whose principles align with their own and their legal advisers are no exception.

So, having a strategic plan embracing a commitment to sustainability, with responsible business practices, makes sound business sense to us. And for any law firm that takes an advisory role on climate change law and policy as we do, anything less comes with a degree of reputational risk.

But our commitment as a profession should run deeper than that. Lawyers have a unique role to play, both as role models and influencers. We can influence policy makers and legislators, and as respected advisers we have a leadership role to play in engaging in a positive way with our clients and other stakeholders. 

This is especially true of those lawyers working in-house, many of whom have a crucial role at board level in helping set the strategic direction of their employer. And thanks to initiatives such as the Carbon Disclosure Project, the sustainability agenda looks set to remain a board issue with larger corporates, as the linkage between environmental impact and business sustainability is increasingly reflected in investor preference and share price.

All good, but of course some would have it that lawyers are also part of the problem.  

It is clear that technological developments, like energy storage and decarbonized transport, requiring vast investment from the private sector, are likely to hold the key to resolving some critical challenges, but for clean tech, protection of intellectual property (IP) is vital.

Tackling climate change will require the rapid dissemination of these technological developments to as many users as possible, but many question how intellectual property law and its lawyers might help or hinder that transfer.

Unfortunately, like any investment, we have to recognise that there must be a profitable return and that comes through protecting IP. Those who spend time and money on our behalf to find the solutions to the problems we all face, should rightly be rewarded.

Some argue the energy sector needs to press for changes in the law to provide even greater protection for IP, to encourage investment and development in clean tech – without the potential for reward, surely we are less likely to see the developments we need.

However the view from the other side is that IP law and the lawyers that defend it so adroitly are acting as a barrier to access and transfer of technologies to developing countries. Some commentators are calling for a Montreal Protocol for climate change, given the success that initiative has delivered on ozone depletion, with all governments working closely together to solve the problem.

Unfortunately, history shows us that before we can transfer technology, we must develop it and the giant leaps in technology we need not to just slow climate change, but reverse it, will require huge spending on research and development.

And so for now, we will continue to identify and defend the all-important IP owned by our clients and where appropriate help them exploit its commercial value to its fullest extent; whilst doing all we can as a firm and individually to mitigate the effects our activities are having on the planet’s climate.

As a law firm, our approach to this issue is certainly not unique. SGH Martineau is one of the Executive Members of the Legal Sector Alliance ( ), which is an inclusive movement of legal sector organisations that understands the global imperative to protect our environment for future generations.  

Made up of over 300 legal organisations, the Legal Sector Alliance is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of the UK legal sector and promoting sustainable business practice in the legal profession.  It does this by encouraging its members to report on their environmental performance each year by reference to seven principles.

Those seven principles are simple enough:

* Measure, manage and reduce impact of operations

* Work with external stakeholders to reduce indirect impact

* Integrate awareness of climate change across our business

* Advise clients on the opportunities and obligations arising from and under climate change law

* Work collaboratively to engage in the public debate on climate change, and develop, apply and promote best practice

* Report on progress and be accountable

* Adopt and pursue a challenging emissions reduction target

The Legal Sector Alliance also acts as a central communications hub, facilitating the sharing of sustainability best practice.

Established in the UK for six years, the Legal Sector Alliance now works with counterpart organisations in the USA (the Law Firm Sustainability Network: ) and Australia (AusLSA: ).

This model of sector collaboration is surely the way forward, and illustrates the unique role that lawyers can play in making a contribution to one of the greatest challenges mankind has faced.

Andrew Whitehead is the Senior Partner at Birmingham and London law firm SGH Martineau LLP.