How Climate Change & the Sustainability Mandate are Changing how Law Firms Operate
Frankie McKeefry moved from public sector law reform, to Interpol, then Corporate before now working to evolving business for the 21st century.
The increasing focus in business on climate, sustainability and related issues is no longer the focus of the occasional ‘greenie’ lawyer, but is now moving front and centre of businesses that need to walk the talk – including the lawyers advising on such issues.
NetZero pledges, regulatory pressures and other moves in corporate strategy are quickly transitioning law firms towards making their own practices sustainable. The legal industry globally has created alliances and groupings like the Net Zero Lawyers Alliance in the UK, founded by New Zealand-born Queen’s Counsel Wendy Miles, (pictured) along with organisations like Lawyers for Climate Justice in Canada and New Zealand, EarthJustice, Climate Change Counsel and others. Global movements like the Chancery Lane Project are open sourcing access to legal clauses and tools needed to align contractual drafting with net zero (i.e. a world without greenhouse gas emissions).
The growing awareness of the climate crisis, as well as recognition of the need for ‘sustainable business’ has reached law firms. Looking at any firm within New Zealand, one can see initiatives that are being developed to drive change throughout the profession.
Among the early movers in New Zealand has been Frankie McKeefry, (pictured, left) a former Russell McVeagh M&A lawyer whose interest in the outdoors and the environment has spurred a career change that has led to his current role with a sustainability consultancy start-up in New Zealand.
While working as a lawyer, McKeefry barracked for his firm to be more conscious of sustainable practices. While it was more often than not on relatively minor matters like the use of single use coffee cups and recycling issues, he knew that this interest in these issues was something that he identified with strongly.
And whilst the sands are slowing moving within law firms to match the larger accounting and consulting firms that have entire service lines devoted to “environmental, social and governance (ESG)”, McKeefry is more readily seeing law firms reflecting on their own operations under a sustainability microscope.
“I think many lawyers potentially forget, or don’t even realise, the opportunity they have to be advocates for a better future for us all.” Frankie McKeefry
Mayne Wetherall, Aotearoa’s only B Corp certified, springs to mind as a firm that has recognised the value (be it external, internal or both) in cementing their sustainability credentials as a business.
Major law firms have also begun recognizing sustainability as a key area to focus their firms with one major firm, Reed Smith, recently awarding billable hour credits for lawyers working on non-legal sustainable areas in a move that is widely known to soon receive much higher attention as law firms seek to attraction the attention of both clients and legal recruits.
“I think many lawyers potentially forget, or don’t even realise, the opportunity they have to be advocates for a better future for us all. We are some of societies’ luckiest – highly educated, well remunerated – so why are we not the critical part of the business community that is helping us transition to the circular, regenerative, inclusive and zero-carbon economy that we need so desperately.”
“Sustainability” in the Law Firm
McKeefry worked at Russell McVeagh at a time of turbulence, largely borne out of the report produced by Dame Margaret Bazley in 2018, and when many firms were undertaking a reassessment of their overall policies and practices. From a young lawyer’s perspective, McKeefry believed this reassessment was the culmination of a number of years of a different generation joining the profession and not being content to do business as it has traditionally been done. This includes the growing work regarding issues falling under the umbrella of “sustainability”.
In his eyes, the COVID pandemic has only served to heighten the focus on these areas, particularly how we best work, balance work’s demands with our lives outside the legal world and how lawyers best show pastoral care and support for others.
During his time in the corporate team at Russell McVeagh, he became increasingly convinced of the need for lawyers and their clients to heed the climate change warnings.
“In my last 12 months there, I really started to push trying to do more in the climate change space. I was reading all of these things that were describing how urgent our global situation is (and how bad the situation is at home), but at one of Aotearoa’s premier commercial firms, these weren’t really conversations we were having.
“Nor was it a conversation we were raising with our clients, despite us being their trusted advisors on risk and compliance.”
Interpol’s Eye Opening Experience
McKeefry, a keen outdoorsman and sportsman, speculates that it was his time in Lyon, France where he came to the realisation of the importance have a sustainable economy.
He spent time in Lyon first on a university student exchange before working as a legal affairs intern at INTERPOL (the global police organisation). It was travelling to places en route to and from Europe that truly opened his eyes to the obvious need for more sustainable tourism, consumerism and, ultimately, how we do business.
“Potentially one of the most confronting things in my new role has been understanding that this totally open way of travelling and meeting new people from different cultures, can’t really be sustained in the form that it existed pre-COVID.”
The stark contrasts among the people and places he saw, as well as the glaring inequality issues sparked his interest in sustainability further.
“…without a doubt, these memories and the imprint they have on your sense of privilege and ‘duty’ sit in the back of my mind.”
The Chance Coffee & A ‘Sustainable’ New Job
The question was, how could his growing interest in the need for things to change to be utilised in doing something with which meant he was actually playing a useful part in finding solutions to our challenges.
While looking for in-house legal roles, McKeefry he was also conscious of seeking out ways in which sustainability could be better incorporated into his legal practice. This lead to his connecting with Nick Morrison, the founding director of Go Well Consulting, a business sustainability consultancy.
Nick Morrison made a job offer that Frankie accepted, with a degree of apprehension. It was, he concedes, a “punt” on Morrison’s part given that he had no sustainability credentials or experience, but it was one that was equally compelling.
“I was a bit surprised, given I was just planning on wracking his brains for some ideas on how I could better incorporate sustainability into my legal work and career.
“It was a massive shift: from law where, generally speaking, there is an answer into strategy (big ideas… frameworks, possibilities – not a lot of answers). Similarly, from M&A to sustainability the gap was pretty large. And then was the move from an established company with precedents, support staff and an intranet where you could find answers to your own questions, to a start-up of three.
Making the Sustainability Move
Making the move from corporate law to sustainability was something that was not going to get any easier, he says.
“I decided that there wasn’t much of a down side in giving Go Well a crack. And, after a tough first six months (I wouldn’t recommend starting a new career on the first day of lockdown, let alone changing to one that requires three plus months of sustained, sobering reading coming to grips with the massive challenges the world is facing), I wouldn’t change back.”
But while the learning curve at the beginning of the change felt particularly steep, McKeefry has also relished this opportunity and the chance to do more structured learning and development in his new role.
“Nick has been super supportive of me doing study. Anything I want really… provided it can be linked back to sustainability, which is a shoe-in for pretty much every course these days. I have also really enjoyed mixing with other sustainability professionals, particularly through the Sustainable Business Network’s leadership program and B Lab’s B Consultant training program. Having done these courses and becoming a registered “B Consultant” under the B Corp framework, has given me plenty of confidence to keep the imposter-syndrome at bay.”
Law Firm Sustainability And What Firms Can Do To Embrace Sustainability
The growing areas of climate change and ESG issues is taking increasing hold among law firms, driven by both client demand and their own desire to factor sustainability into their firm practices.
The focus of “sustainability” for law firms, McKeefry says, is not all about environmental issues, but rather the ‘three pillars’ – planet, people and economics.
“Ultimately, to be sustainable you need to tackle all three. At the end of the day, to be “sustainable”, you need to have a regenerative impact. That is: restore the damage we have inherited (particularly in the case of the environment) that has occurred on the planet and the people your business touches – the employees, supply chain, customers – whether or not you think you are directly responsible for that. The third piece of regeneration: run your business successfully – pay people, be transparent and trustworthy, and contribute to the communities you operate in.”
“. . that partnership carrot that (at least speaking with my friends) doesn’t seem as appealing in 2022 as it was in 2002”
Young Lawyers’ Changing Workplace Expectations
He notes how COVID has hastened the move for younger lawyers in particular to recognize that high pay and long hours does not necessarily meet their workplace expectations any longer.
“My role at Go Well has hammered home, by seeing it play out in our most successful clients, that ‘purpose’ is at the core of having business that is sustainable for the planet and people, as well as being profitable.
“I suggest that law firms’ greatest opportunity coming from the ESG wave is figuring out their purpose, and then better embedding this into their operations and culture.
“A great lesson I’ve learnt in my short time in sustainability, from (author) Simon Sinek [pictured] (who is far more insightful than me): profit is not purpose, but a result of that purpose.
“You don’t have to have a purpose that saves the planet (you wonder if that would be genuine for a law firm anyway), but I wonder if an authentic “purpose” could replace that partnership carrot that, at least speaking with my friends, doesn’t seem as appealing in 2022 as it was in 2002.”
Although law firms may leave a relatively light environmental footprint, they can do more for their sustainability than use low-wattage lights, sustainably-sourced printing paper and reusable coffee cups, he says.
The key ‘unsustainable’ practices within law firms are around the people, he says. He believes a law firm must have core competencies that speak to more than just legal work and financial metrics. Similarly, a mandatory leadership and management training programme for senior staff is another example of something in the “low hanging fruit basket” of what firms can be doing.
“One of the most interesting parts of my job is helping businesses look at their governance structures and business models. From there, we figure out how they can build better, more sustainable outcomes within those structures or models.”
He gives the example in a law firm of performance review processes that may not result in the most sustainable outcomes, i.e. fail to promoting traditionally underrepresented groups into the partnership and other leadership positions.
There should be development and promotion of people leaders – not just as rainmakers. Promotion (and remuneration) should reflect and reward people for their holistic contribution to the business, not just the bottom line.
“Addressing the systemic, structural factors that result in negative outcomes (such as an underrepresentation of women in partnership) has to be good for business and a process that is much more likely (according the research) to achieve these outcomes as opposed to the blunt force or arbitrary affirmative action. D&I is a good example here, as firms are moving – but it’s still unclear whether this is as a result of external pressure and scrutiny, rather than firms reflecting what is genuinely best for business.
“I love that my job is literally challenging businesses to figure out where the next piece of external pressure is coming from, and then get ahead of the curve.”
“. . this prestige and the sense of duty to the court became lost in the weeds of commercial contracts . . “
Law Firm Sustainability and The Lawyers’ Duty
He says that the status and prestige of being a lawyer also carries a duty.
“I like this about the profession, and the pageantry of being admitted to the Bar cemented this feeling for me.
“However, I found that as a lawyer who was not practising as a barrister, this prestige and the sense of duty to the court became lost in the weeds of commercial contracts, sale & purchase agreements and shareholders deeds.
“The commercial worth to shareholders in what I was doing was obvious… the other wider “value” to society, much less so.”
Sustainability Law Firm And The Need to Act Now
While he admits the job to create a sustainable future now is big one, McKeefry is convinced that the impacts issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, rising inequality, degrading mental health and growing populist extremism (as just a small set of the challenges that lay before us) will have on future generations will undoubtedly be bigger, potentially insurmountable, if we don’t act now.
Frankie McKeefry believes that in rising to this challenge, law firms can act as leaders, as well as assisting clients to make their own transition to sustainable practices.
“Working in sustainability, I get to directly touch on lots of matters that speak to some of the largest challenges we face in achieving sustainable development across the globe – climate change, modern slavery, the list goes on. And even though I don’t have solicitor in my title, I like the fact that this gives me a chance to use my lawyerly skills and education to advocate for better.