On a rainy day in February 2020, a group of Extinction Rebellion campaigners wearing hazmat suits lay on the pavement in front of Slaughter and May’s London office. The soggy scene was staged in protest against the firm’s decision to represent fossil fuel companies, in particular Premier Oil.

Last week, campaigners targeted the City once again. Writing for Gazette Online, Tim Crosland – a former government lawyer and director of campaign group Plan B Earth – justified the protests, saying ‘anyone who applies their professional skills to increasing investment in fossil fuels is complicit in the destruction of the conditions which make this planet habitable – the ultimate crime against humanity and life on earth.’

With their drums and grungy headbands, Extinction Rebellion protesters are the antithesis of corporate London. However, the questions they raise are starting to be discussed in boardrooms across the City. In short, should law firms be representing – and profiting from – some of the world’s biggest carbon emitters?

Professor Paul Watchman, a former Freshfields partner and advisory board chair for Lawyers for Net Zero, believes firms need to be more discerning when it comes to picking clients. ‘Law firms can say they expect their clients to have certain values – because clients are saying it to the law firms now.

‘We’re not asking them to dump clients on day one – but maybe don’t accept instructions that relate to building a coal-fired power station in China,’ he added. ‘And a big thing they could do is stop their clients litigating on climate change.’

We’re not asking them to dump clients on day one – but maybe don’t accept instructions that relate to building a coal-fired power station in China

Professor Paul Watchman, Lawyers for Net Zero

Watchman is keen to stress, however, that solicitors are in a tricky position. ‘If you look at a lot of the law firms, it’s wrong to accuse them of hypocrisy or greenwashing based only on those issues. I know, for example, that firms like Linklaters and Clifford Chance are taking this very seriously and trying to look at ways in which they and their clients can reduce their carbon footprint.

‘These people are not insincere. But they may have to start choosing their clients.’

In the City itself, solicitors are less keen to cut lucrative ties. Alexander Rhodes, head of Mishcon de Reya’s sustainability practice, said that shunning certain sectors works well for investment funds but not for legal practices.

‘If we’re going to tackle the existential problems of climate change and biodiversity loss, businesses which have the largest footprint – which are often the businesses that have the largest influence – need advice as to how to change,’ he said. ‘If their access to legal advice is just cut off, they’re going to be hampered in making that change.

‘Everyone agrees that we need to move away from fossil fuels. But you can’t just move away from fossil fuels today. It’s a question of how you do it. There is money and there is work in the transformation.’

City practices are under real pressure to act sustainably, Rhodes added. ‘I think we’re moving towards a time where every business is effectively a public business. There is a far greater expectation on businesses to behave responsibly today than there ever has been before.’

Carbon reporting, for example, is likely to become a major consideration for businesses, with the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure consulting on how disclosure requirements should relate to businesses such as LLPs.

Regulation is just one area of change. In-house legal teams are also changing the way businesses operate. Meanwhile, future professionals are asserting their priorities. Law Students for Climate Accountability, founded last year by Yale law students, has invited firms to take a ‘climate pledge’ under which they will ‘not take on work to support the fossil fuel industry, now and into the future’.

As climate change becomes more urgent, solicitors face a crossroads. A study by the London School of Economics found that the number of climate change disputes has more than doubled in the past five years and practitioners are observing a similar change: Allen & Overy partner Suzanne Spears expects a ‘flood of litigation’ .

Firms, therefore, risk becoming increasingly polarised by the work they take on. Should they continue to work with fossil fuel companies as lawsuits pour in, or should they rethink their client base before things get messy? And how does cutting ties with certain sectors square with the universal right for legal representation?

The answer is unlikely to fit on a placard. One thing is clear, however: as the planet warms up, lawyers will be feeling the heat.


This article is now closed for comment.