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Commercial Question

What impact will net zero have on law firms?

updated on 28 February 2022


What is net zero and why must lawyers take an active interest?


Generally, law firms are looking to establish a high-quality client base with profitable clients where they can create strong, long-lasting relationships. However, sustainability has been moving slowly up the agenda in all aspects of the economy over recent years, and it's likely to be a major focus for law firms moving forwards. There are two aspects to this focus – the internal credentials of the firm (ie, its environmental, social and governance (ESG) focus), and what it can offer clients.

What is net zero?

Net zero is a commitment by the UK government to ensure that by 2050 the amount of greenhouse gases that the UK as a whole produces is less than the amount it takes out of the atmosphere. Like other businesses, law firms will need to adopt policies and implement strategies to deliver on the obligations. However, law firms can also take the lead in advising clients on policies, regulation, strategies and projects that will need to be developed and implemented by the private and public sector to hit the 2050 obligation. 

Who is driving the agenda?

Net zero is acknowledged as being the single biggest UK government policy and legal driver over the next decades (outside of covid-19 recovery). It will impact public and private businesses in the UK, as well as every UK individual. It is likely to drive key decisions on infrastructure and presents enormous opportunities for organisations that are early leaders in the space.

What about law firms' ESG focus?

What we do, and how we do it has a wider impact beyond simply delivering legal services and solutions to our clients. This brings accountability for everything from a firm's recycling statistics and net-zero strategy to broader ethical business behaviours; tighter supply chain management; diversity and inclusivity; community and business support; and health and wellbeing, all under one banner.

The covid-19 pandemic has proven that we can all adapt and work in different ways, and law firms must commit to reducing their environmental impact further, through maximising technology to conduct business and share information, combined with being more intentional about business travel. Firms will need to comply with reporting obligations in their annual reports and track progress year on year.

Innovative law firms will likely look at strategies to commit legal spend on measurable environmental initiatives, such as:

  • changing purchasing practices;
  • sustainable energy supply;
  • reducing heat gain, electricity consumption, paper usage;
  • reducing equipment replacement spend;
  • zero-waste-to-landfill;
  • LED lighting;
  • technology usage to reduce travel impact (including agile working policies); and
  • creating more wildlife-friendly office grounds.

What can law firms offer to clients?

In addition to law firms navigating the net-zero framework themselves, they can offer services to clients to help them with their own journey – and share their own experiences (good and bad) as part of that. This extends from advising investors looking to make a social, environmental and sustainable investment, to advising those in the forefront of the decarbonisation push. Examples of sectors that are on the trajectory for decarbonisation are transport, energy, built environment, land use and food production.

A sustainable economy aims to balance the preservation of the planet's natural resources with the needs of humanity. Law firms can advise clients in their development of practices that support long-term economic growth without negatively impacting the social, environmental and cultural aspects of our communities.

Alexandra Watson is a partner in the corporate team and the training principal at Michelmores LLP.