Acting in the client’s best interest does not mean ignoring human rights, says partner at magic circle firm Allen & Overy.

Firms advising multinational corporations must not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, particularly as they expand into more jurisdictions, Andrew Denny, partner at magic circle firm Allen & Overy, said today. 

Denny (pictured), a speaker at the Law Society’s Human Rights Conference 2013, told the Gazette: ‘Human rights issues are coming up more with the expansion into more jurisdictions.’ 

Myanmar, for example, is going to present ‘a lot of challenges’, he said. ‘We are grappling with that, but that is the consequence of globalisation.’ 

Firms are lagging in codifying the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, intended to prevent impacts on human rights linked to business activity, he said.  

A&O has turned down clients on the basis of human rights abuses, said Denny.

But the question of ethics and a client’s best interests are not mutually exclusive issues, he added. 'What clients want to do in their short-term interests is not necessarily in their interests in the long term.’ 

The duty of firms is to open the eyes of clients to the longer-term impact human rights abuses can have on their corporate reputation.

‘That is about becoming a more rounded and trusted adviser to the client,’ he said.

This is even more incumbent on general counsel, he said. ‘But the issues for general counsel are more difficult, because if private firms don’t like [what they see] they can always refuse to act.’

Also speaking at the conference, Shanta Martin, solicitor at employment and human rights firm Leigh Day, said: ‘A lawyer’s duty is to clients but also to the court. They can’t win by any means.’ 

She said corporate social responsibility programmes are not enough to prevent human rights abuses. ‘CSR is good to have but it can be used as a PR screen. It is important people read them critically,’ she said.