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Pulse of the Profession: Survey reveals lawyers’ priorities about world problems

By Pamela Cone.

Society needs lawyers in good times and in bad. And the legal profession can and does play a critical role in addressing society’s most pressing challenges.

The social impact of the legal profession

Many lawyers went to law school to make a difference. Often, the attraction of an extremely high compensation package blurs the lines between “making a difference” and “making money.”

But the results of the current Pulse of the Profession survey reveal law firms are committed to creating transformative change.

Pulse of the Profession

In an ongoing Legal ESG Pulse of the Profession survey, lawyers throughout the legal ecosystem are invited to respond to questions about their social impact priorities. Using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework, the Legal ESG Pulse of the Profession provides a real-time look at the most important, material, and relevant priorities of lawyers and for the legal profession.

The survey is conducted by ESG Intelligence Group, in collaboration with Inside Practice LLC, and my consultancy Amity Advisory LLC.

The Pulse of the Profession survey is based on the 17 United Nations SDGs, also known as the Global Goals. The SDGs were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

The survey asks three questions:

  1. Which SDG is most important to you, reflecting your own personal perspectives and passions?

  2. Which SDG do you believe is most material and relevant for your company/firm, given its industry and its areas of expertise?

  3. Which SDG represents the greatest opportunity for the legal profession to influence/drive the greatest societal impact? So far, respondents from more than 80 firmsin 15 countries have responded to the survey. Each month, we post the current results at Legal ESG.

The results to date are very encouraging and clearly affirm the important role of the legal profession in addressing society’s most challenging problems.

Question #1 - Which SDG is most important to you, reflecting your own personal perspectives and passions?

Not surprisingly, the top SDG from the personal perspective of the respondents is SDG #13 – Climate Action. This goal, which strives to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts,” is of utmost importance.

As we have learned throughout the pandemic, “businesses cannot survive in societies that fail.” And clearly, the pressing climate crisis and its ramifications are demonstrating the truth of that statement with increasing frequency. Without its due attention and action, it won’t be just businesses that fail. But also society as we know it.

Question 2 - Which SDG do you believe is most material and relevant for your company/firm, given its industry and its areas of expertise?

When considering the firm/business perspective, the emerging SDG most material and relevant is SDG #16: Peace, justice, and strong institutions. This goal strives to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Given the current strains on these critical elements of our societies, we need urgent action.

Question #3 - Which SDG represents the greatest opportunity for the legal profession to influence/drive the greatest societal impact?

It’s encouraging to see that the respondents believe the #1 SDG for the legal profession is also SDG #16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions. Because if firms believe this work is most material and meaningful to their business, AND for the profession, it opens the door for greater collaboration and partnerships, bringing the power, skills, and expertise of the legal profession to the tasks at hand.

No single lawyer and no single company or firm will make sufficient progress alone. Together, however, we might have a chance.

A deeper dive into the results

If you’d like to see the full report, with more details, take the 2-minute Pulse of the Profession, survey. All respondents will receive the reports, tracking the results over the next 12 months. Results are updated the first of each month.

The time for change is now

Unfortunately, the foundation and infrastructure needed for a well-functioning, democratic, healthy, fair, and just society are being eroded by long-term, ongoing issues, as well as more recent events.

  • Around the globe, society is experiencing the deadly and costly ramifications of the climate crisis.

  • We have lived with the pandemic for more than two years that has changed society forever.

  • Global social unrest is rooted in societal inequities—health, racial, gender, economic, and access to justice, as well as entrenched systems that perpetuate and sustain those inequities.

  • In many countries, threats to democracy are real and urgent. Even in those countries once seen as beacons of democracy, the very institutions, trust, civil discourse, and decorum required for a functioning democracy are crumbling.

  • And finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is testing the very foundation of our society, our mores, and our willingness to act (or not) to protect that which we believe is right and root out that which we believe is wrong.

There is no shortage of opportunities for the legal professions to act on those SDGs that emerged as most material and relevant in the Pulse of the Profession survey: #16-Climate Action and #13-Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

Lawyers come together for climate action and peace, justice and strong institutions

It is encouraging and heartwarming to see the numerous avenues for lawyers to use their highest and best skills, to collaborate in the fight against the climate crisis and to preserve peace, justice, and strong institutions.

Here are several examples from their websites of promising initiatives, with descriptions of their missions and work:

Lawyers for Net Zero is working with one of the most influential sectors in society, the in-house legal community, to deliver significant climate action.

  • Vision: Lawyers play a vital role in the practical activity required to maintain a sustainable future for us all.

  • Focus: We are exclusively focused on in-house counsel and teams due to their central role in business and society.

  • Opportunity: Climate aware counsel help their organisations guard against greenwashing and achieve legitimate Net Zero.

The Chancery Lane Project (TCLP) is a collaborative effort of legal professionals from around the world whose vision is a world where every contract enables solutions to climate change.

  • We create new, practical contractual clauses ready to incorporate into law firm precedents and commercial agreements to deliver climate solutions.

  • We then work with lawyers to ensure effective and impactful implementation of the clauses across industries, practice areas, and jurisdictions.

  • We have launched our Net Zero Toolkit, a collection of clauses and tools which enable lawyers to align their work with a decarbonised economy, and a safe and habitable planet for us all.

Net Zero Lawyers Alliance (NZLA) commits to support the goal of net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 or sooner, in line with global efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C (Net Zero). It also commits to amplify Race to Zero law firm membership, including law firms in developing states. And it supports aligning commercial clients’ legal contracts and terms, and their enforcement, with net zero.

The Law Firm Sustainability Network (LFSN) is a nonprofit organization of law firms and legal departments committed to promoting the benefits of environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility within their firms and throughout the legal industry. We believe by working collaboratively and giving firms essential tools and resources, we can have an ever-greater impact on preserving the environment. The LFSN’s mission is to develop key performance indicators, foster knowledge-sharing, develop best practice guidelines, and recognize innovation regarding environmental sustainability in the U.S. legal sector.

Legal Sustainability Alliance (LSA) has led the way in sustainability for UK-based law firms since its inception in 2007. During that time, firms have moved from measuring and managing their carbon emissions to committing to net zero by putting sustainability at the heart of their businesses. It’s now a strategic imperative for all law firms to work on their transition to a low- carbon business model.

Australian Legal Sector Alliance (AusLSA) is an industry-led association working collaboratively to promote best practice sustainability commitments and performance across the legal sector. AusLSA’s sustainability framework includes sustainable and inclusive workplaces, community support, environmental conservation, and responsible governance.

Global Alliance of Impact Lawyers (GAIL) is a community of legal leaders who are using the practice of law to have a positive impact on people and the planet and to accelerate the just transition. We believe lawyers are uniquely positioned to facilitate change and support the movement towards a more equitable system. We profile, connect, educate, inspires, and mobilise impact lawyers—locally and around the world.

The opportunity to make a difference

It’s very easy to get discouraged when assessing the numerous threats to and challenges of our current society – the climate crisis, social inequities, threats to democracy, and the global pandemic, to name just a few.

Law firms make the greatest societal impact through client work—not through pro bono programs, philanthropic programs, or volunteer “days of service.” While all those things are important and make a difference, the societal impact of these “side” initiatives pales in comparison to client work.

The legal profession is in a unique and privileged position to use its highest and best skills to make significant change. We can start with our own firms. But the sphere of influence we enjoy through our client work can amplify our efforts exponentially.

Clearly, the early results of the Pulse of the Profession survey affirm our desire to solve some of the most pressing problems. This is our moment, our opportunity, and our obligation.


About the Author

Pamela Cone is the founder and CEO of Amity Advisory. She works with the leadership teams of professional service firms to address the growing expectations of all stakeholders – clients, prospects, employees, recruits, and communities – around their firms' ESG, social impact, and sustainability programs.

A special thanks to Daniel Smallwood of Inside Practice - as he is collaborating with me on the Pulse of the Profession project.

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