Dear Managing Partners
As you draw breath in the hiatus between one frenetic year and another, please pause to reflect on the power at your disposal in these pivotal days.
I don’t doubt how challenging things are for you, with so many competing issues to consider. However, by any objective assessment there is one which must be at the very top of your, and all your peers’, priority list: doing all you can to contribute to increases in global temperature not exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (what I will call here, for shorthand, the Climate Goal).
Not for you the relative luxury your predecessors enjoyed of simply having to grow the business: the bottom line was the top line and the rest was not their concern. Nor do you have the excuse your successors may rely on, being able to say they are constrained by the critical decisions taken, or not taken, in the 2020s. You are the ones, here, now, taking those decisions that will contribute to tipping us into climate chaos, or pulling us back from the brink.
To achieve the Climate Goal, the IPCC has made clear that emissions need to reduce by 45% by 2030. When the world economy ground to a halt emissions fell (briefly) by 6%. That is what we need, every year, for the rest of the decade. This may seem an impossible ask, but after the financial crash and the pandemic, we cannot say we are not used to big challenges. When the pandemic hit, things previously considered impossible happened in a matter of days and the G20 has spent $11 trillion in response.
If the climate emergency does not feel as immediate as seeing our intensive care wards filling up, please read the first twelve pages of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry of the Future. It offers a frighteningly convincing depiction of what it means when wet bulb temperatures remain for any time above 35°C. He sets this in India in July 2025. Something similar has already happened, more briefly and less intensely, in Canada in 2021, so this kind of horror is already a clear and present danger.
It may not happen with us, but it cannot happen without us
There is a direct line between the decisions we take now and that level of suffering, which can longer be ignored. When Covid-19 erupted, immunologists were well placed to respond with a vaccine, keeping a lid on the worst impacts of the virus. By ignoring climate heating for decades, we do not have an equivalent technical solution that is deployable at the scale and within the timeframes required to get emissions down by the amounts needed this decade. There is no vaccine for climate heating; no other intervention, or technical solution, that will reduce emissions by 45% by 2030. We can only do it by changing ourselves: how we live, work, relate to one another, share the use of natural resources. This can only happen in a co-ordinated, managed way which, in turn, can only happen with appropriate laws effectively applied by suitably motivated professionals. It may not happen with us, but it cannot happen without us.
We either are, or we are not sustainable. And law firms, currently, are not.
I know lots of the big law firms are doing something related to this issue now. Many are, of themselves, quite eye-catching initiatives, but they exist in isolation – both within those firms and more widely across the profession – and are nowhere near enough. To be sustainable means to be able to exist (ideally flourish) for the foreseeable future. To do one, or even a handful of things which tip the hat towards sustainable practice whilst doing much more which pulls in the other direction utterly negates that. We cannot be a bit sustainable (any more than a woman can be a bit pregnant). We either are, or we are not. And law firms, currently, are not.
In terms of systems change, you are a significant and powerful leverage point.
Of course, no one law firm can make the difference between humanity succeeding and failing in reducing emissions by 45% in the next eight years. Collectively though, law firms and lawyers can play a critical role in creating the conditions to make it possible. Clients listen to their lawyers. And the clients of the largest firms are themselves the largest businesses, the largest investors, the regulators and policy makers, all of whom in turn have their own vast spheres of influence. You, as managing partners, can influence your fellow partners and your work colleagues in how to engage with those clients, pivoting professional development and business development budgets towards this end. You can influence fellow managing partners, so this is happening across the profession, not in isolation. Other professionals will pay attention and may adopt similar approaches, creating further positive shifts in practice. Academics and opinion formers and the public will quickly take note. In terms of systems change, you are a significant and powerful leverage point.
The direction of travel is surely set: the question is only how fast we move … or am I being naïve?
Financial institutions have committed to measuring and reducing the emissions associated with the funding they provide. Advertising agencies are doing the same in relation to the impact of the advice they give their clients. There is no reason law firms could not do the same. And doesn’t it make sound business sense to do so? The direction of travel is surely set: the question is only how fast we move. It feels like soon corporate clients, investors, governments, customers, colleagues, citizens are all going to be expecting those they choose to buy from to be contributing to the collective endeavour of creating a world we want to be able to live comfortably in. Why would we lawyers choose to be a drag on progress towards that, rather than an accelerant towards it?
There has been lots of talk, of late, about responsible business practice. I cannot think of any law firms I have encountered who would be comfortable with being presented, or considered, as irresponsible. However, I equally struggle currently to name any who appear committed to be truly responsible in doing all they can to shifting the dial on emissions reduction this decade. Am I being naïve – are you already planning for a world of 2°C heating and more, assuming lawyers will always have work and not be among the worst affected?
What if the better I am at my job the more harm I am causing?
I know I am not alone among lawyers in feeling compromised in my work currently. I like the intellectual challenge; the adrenalin that comes from being pushed to maintain quality, whilst doing a huge amount of often complicated stuff in a short time; the huge financial rewards. And yet, I cannot get this question out of my head (in fact, it seems to get louder with each passing year): what if the better I am at my job the more harm I am causing?
It is not just the climate heating. It is knowing we have caused the Sixth Mass Extinction, destroying parts of our own life-support system, and knowing that each year we are currently consuming almost twice the amount of resources the planet is capable of replenishing (much more so in the West). We are stealing from our descendants when we don’t need to, but choose, in full knowledge, to do so. And these are not descendants several generations hence. Most trainee solicitors you will have welcomed to your firms this year are likely to be practising still in 2050 by which time, if we continue on our current trajectory, they will be having to cope with the consequences of our failures to act this decade.
I do not want to stop being a lawyer. I think I have lots to contribute to society, given the chance. I want to work for a firm, and in a profession, that starts by asking, ‘how can I help achieve the Climate Goal, protect and restore the environment and ensure an equitable distribution of earth’s resources between its inhabitants – and make a decent living doing so?’ At the moment it feels that, too often, the approach is still, ‘what can we do to signal engagement with these issues without changing our business model or eating into our PEP?’
Winning slowly is the same as losing
As lawyers, we are trained to build a case to substantiate our client’s position, whatever that is. I have heard various arguments from lawyers as to why we are constrained in engaging fully with the climate emergency we are facing. Many, frankly, are pretty weak, but they still serve to delay and obfuscate and preserve the status quo. As the leaders of the leaders of our profession, I implore you, collectively, to set the agenda: to say we are focusing our energies first and foremost now on helping deliver the Climate Goal. We will work with our clients to help them decarbonise. We will identify where the law may inhibit that and work with policy makers and regulators to improve law and regulation to remove those blockages. We will develop legal instruments and practices which will enable a just transition. Just imagine what we could do with your best talent directed towards solving this problem, not building arguments to avoid acting. “Winning slowly is the same as losing,” as Bill McKibben has said. If we do not get those emissions down by 45% by 2030 there will be enough carbon locked into the atmosphere to make heating of 2°C and more inevitable, with all the social, environmental and economic carnage that will bring with it.
Any transitional costs of doing all necessary to deal with the climate emergency are dwarfed by the longer term costs of not doing so
I wonder whether you have conversations, with the fellow partners in your firm, or fellow managing partners across the profession, and consider what is the best and the worst that could happen if we (i) carry on as we are and (ii) throw all our resources into meeting the challenges the emergency presents. I assume you don’t as, if you did, I cannot imagine how you could come to any conclusion other than the need to make the emergency the overriding priority.
The most basic risk register looks at the likelihood of a risk occurring and the scale of impact if it does. The only way the climate emergency is not the number one risk every time on that basis is if you say you are only looking at the next twelve months which, absent a terminal illness, is a pretty artificial approach to adopt. It is certainly not one to be expected of true strategists or leaders.
Any transitional costs of focussing on doing all necessary to deal with the climate emergency are dwarfed by the longer term costs of not doing so. I can only imagine that the analysis is being avoided in favour of sticking with what we know and what still works today. Again, that does not feel like leadership to me.
I have noticed that whenever the issue of the need for radical change to address the climate and ecological emergencies arises, the conversation is almost always shifted onto something else. It becomes about the need for school strikers to go back to their classrooms, or judges threatening democracy by interpreting laws in a certain way, or needing to keep the lights on. Anything to avoid the question itself: how shall we reduce our emissions immediately to avoid creating an uninhabitable earth?
I believe you will be surprised, if you are brave enough to act, how many will embrace your lead and follow. I know there are many of us thinking this cannot last, wondering what will be the tipping point, who will take us beyond it, hoping those with the power to accelerate along our inevitable path will exercise that power before it is too late.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure
It is said that all that’s required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing; that “those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil”. Evil is something not discussed in polite circles and, of course, in mentioning it here I am not saying you and other managing partners are evil. I do though urge you to consider that in not exercising the power you collectively wield at this moment in history it is foreseeable (to the point of inevitability) that harm will follow on a scale which will feel evil to all those experiencing and witnessing it.
In a way you find yourselves in an unenviable position, being the ones forced to confront this question, having run out of road to kick the can down. I really hope, however, you don’t see it like that. I hope you see it as the opportunity to be a true hero; to recognise the timeliness of the moment and you being in it and to step up and do what is needed; to be like Gorbachev or de Klerk, seeing history’s writing on the wall and enabling the necessary shift, not Andropov or Botha, painfully prolonging the inevitable a little longer.
American poet Marianne Williamson wrote:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
She is speaking for all of us, but you and your peers, more than most, can make a difference by facing that fear and leading by example. I hope you do, providing inspiration for many more.
Thank you for listening.