Green Hub: ESG in the DNA – embedding green purpose in law firm business

With ESG having risen to prominence in the legal industry, law firms’ climate-conscious credentials are now under the spotlight more than ever more. On the back of two years of research for the Legal 500 Green Guide, editor Anna Bauböck takes stock of the firms featured in the current editions and showcases the greenest of the green

2024 marks the third year The Legal 500 will be researching firms’ dedication to sustainability matters and contributions to a green transition. With preparations for the next round of Green Guide editions underway, the depth of information gathered to date presents a unique opportunity to look back, review the results of our efforts, and examine the current state of play with regards to law firms, sustainability and their climate action.

The past year has seen another push towards acknowledging the impact of climate change on lawyers, the role of lawyers in addressing the climate crisis, and the need to work towards climate conscious legal practice. In the UK, in March 2023, a group of lawyers signed a declaration of conscience, ‘Lawyers are Responsible’, calling on legal professionals to act urgently to address the climate and ecological crises, advance a just transition, and withhold services supporting new fossil fuel projects. In April 2023, this was shortly followed by the Law Society issuing guidance for solicitors on incorporating climate change considerations into their practice. Not long after in June 2023, a group of law firms in the UK launched the Legal Charter 1.5, a landmark initiative urging and supporting firms to respond meaningfully to the climate crisis. Similar actions have sprung up elsewhere around Europe and further afield.

In turn, this past year, the Green Guide has seen a significant expansion of submitting firms wishing to participate in our research, with submission numbers almost doubling in various jurisdictions. The most recent 2024 EMEA Green Guide saw a 48% increase in the number of submissions and a 42% increase in the number of firms featured. In the 2024 UK Green Guide, we had a 48% growth in featured firms after receiving an 11% increase in submissions. In our Asia-Pacific edition, the number of firms included rose by 74% and submitters by 34%, while in Latin America both featured and submitting firms more than doubled.

Around the world, an increasing number of firms are waking up to the importance of ESG, not only in terms of creating a dedicated client service offering, but also in terms of their own internal operations.

This is of course a business imperative for many firms, with ESG legal advice hot in demand and sustainability credentials good for the brand. Indeed, ESG can strengthen a firm’s reputation, as well as benefit recruitment and retention. But it also comes with risks. As sustainability and climate consciousness are gaining more attention, so is greenwashing. While law firms will see the challenges their clients face in connection with the increased scrutiny on false sustainability and environmental claims, they too are not immune to potential allegations.

On a green mission

During our research for the Green Guide, while we have witnessed an expanding range of firms engaging with sustainability matters, we have also observed an – albeit still small – but growing number of firms for whom ESG is not just business but who truly want to do right by society at large.

Often these are young or newly established firms, who have taken the opportunity of launching a new venture to purposefully write ESG into their DNA. One pioneer is Hong Kong-based Ben McQuhae & Co, which launched in 2021 as a commercial law firm with an explicit focus on ESG and sustainability practices. Self-defined “lawyers for tomorrow” who want to build a sustainable future, the team provides legal support only to projects which make a positive impact through alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In order to enforce this, the firm has developed an SDG tracker to assess and measure the impact of its work against the SDGs. Its work is matched by serious external engagement in ESG thought leadership and an internal commitment to become a carbon net zero firm.

2021 also saw the launch of Sustainable Law in Denmark and 1,5 in Norway. In both cases, the name says it all: the Danish boutique was founded by project development expert Merete Larson who has based her entire business model around people, planet, and profit. 1,5, meanwhile, is an independent and specialist firm established by Jens Naas-Bibow, former head of the renewables department at Thommessen, and Frode Støle, a former judge at the Oslo District Court, with a focus exclusively on renewable energy, infrastructure and sustainability. Viewing law as a tool to help clients combat climate change, it aims to contribute to the 1.5-degree goal via its work.

In the UK, two new firms both launched in 2022 which have committed themselves to building a sustainable future. Paxus, which was founded by ex-Allen & Overy partner Suzanne Spears, was established to provide representation at the intersection of business and human rights, including addressing the climate crisis from a human rights angle. The firm aligns itself with the Law Society’s Climate Change Resolution and has signed the Greener Arbitrations Pledge.

Pallas Partners, another a disputes-focused boutique, was launched by former Boies Schiller Flexner London head Natasha Harrison. Despite its focus on commercial and financial disputes, it has taken on various clients and mandates driving positive change in society and the environment while also committing to the Campaign for Greener Arbitration as well as the Greener Litigation Pledge.

The latest addition to UK-based firms with a grand vision is Gen R Law, whose mission statement is to change the future for the next generation. Joshua Domb, previously a white collar crime and investigations associate at international full-service firms, envisions his new firm to practise law through the lens of addressing climate change, with specialist climate change, environment and green-tech expertise embedded in every practice area. As doors opened in March 2024, he is initially assisting clients with establishing a robust ESG programme by providing board training.

But it is not only a new generation of law firms innovating with new business models. Established firms are also trying to make a difference, such as Burges Salmon in the UK. An early adopter of measuring, managing and reporting on its emissions (since 2008), over the past years, the firm has taken its values to the next level with a rigorous and transparent approach to responsible business, implementing comprehensive measures across all three segments of E, S and G.

City firm Bates Wells has a particular focus on charities and social enterprises, therefore it is not entirely unsurprising that it sits among the more purpose-driven law firms, demonstrating a serious commitment to reducing its impact on the environment and supporting a just transition to net zero. Backing its ethos of putting profit and purpose on an equal footing, the firm was the first in the UK to be certified as B Corp in 2015.

That same year, Lux Nova Partners launched in the UK as a team of senior lawyers with no offices but one common purpose: advising communities, businesses and governments on clean energy, circular economy and nature based solutions, and an explicit policy of never supporting the fossil fuel industry.

Noteworthy are also two other litigation firms which aim to have a positive impact on the environment through the cases they bring. Pogust Goodhead was created specifically to address environmental wrong doings committed by corporations. The class actions law firm’s origins are tied to the Volkswagen diesel emissions fraud claim and the representation of the victims of the 2015 Mariana dam collapse in Brazil against BHP, and it has secured several precedent setting rulings. Its mission to help individuals, groups and businesses acquire access to justice is inextricably linked to its genuine commitment to the green transition.

Similarly, Leigh Day, despite its origins as a specialist personal injury firm, is now also at the forefront of representing claimants in landmark environmental litigation cases which often lead to crucial reforms in legal frameworks governing the protection of the environment, biodiversity, and wildlife. The firm has also led on some of the biggest group litigation cases, such as the Dieselgate scandal, and has brought the first cases which defined the law for how multinational corporations based in the UK could be held accountable for pollution and massive environmental degradation.

Elsewhere in Europe, for independent Swiss firm id est avocats, advising on green and ESG mandates is not only a growing line of business, but the team has made it part of its mission, consistently advocating for sustainable and responsible business practices and actively supporting green, impact, and ESG initiatives in the country. Its commitment is verified: The firm has also been a B Corp certified business since 2022.

In Austria, environmental boutique Niederhuber, given its background and focus on environmental issues, quite naturally and without much fanfare lives and breathes the green transition. Its dedication to climate action extends from enabling environmentally friendly and sustainable projects for its clients to shaping the legal policy discourse in the country. Forming alliances with the like-minded, the firm has an informal partnership with Austrian procurement specialists Heid & Partner, who specialise in and are big proponents of green procurement. A self-described life cycle law firm, it has built “360 degree sustainability” into its advice from start to finish of every client’s project.

In Germany, von Bredow Valentin Herz lives and breathes green energy. Similar to Lux Nova in the UK, the Berlin-based boutique is not only a specialist in renewable energy but also driven by the conviction that we urgently need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and implement a comprehensive energy transition. Since the founding of the firm, it has cooperated with the Research Centre for Sustainability and Climate Policy.

Another similar outfit – an energy boutique focusing exclusively on the energy transition – is Angulo Martínez in Colombia. Experts in energy, climate change and sustainability, the firm’s entire business approach is focused on sustainability and helping clients navigate the green transition.

Colombia also houses Mendoza Abogados, a finance boutique founded in 2018 which only advises on projects utilising clean technologies to minimise their negative environmental and social impacts while furthering the government-promoted renewable energy targets. Proud of its high ethical standards, the firm is committed to helping clients develop sustainable projects, promoting ESG factors, and advancing the green transition in the country.

Lastly, in the Dominican Republic, boutique firm Santroni Parsons has also made sustainability its core concern. Its sustainability specialists lead on client work pursuing green development within the tourism industry. While aiming to make the development of investment projects legally and environmentally viable from a compliance perspective, sustainability is considered the main objective.

Fewer emissions? More transitions!

The above mentioned law firms do not form a comprehensive list of those who have truly dedicated themselves to operating a business with the climate emergency in mind, and are merely some of the players we have come across during our research for the Green Guide. There will be other entities which have taken similar steps. There will also be others who have implemented serious and commendable science-based measures to achieve net zero; others with certain teams and departments handling important and impactful work towards a more sustainable planet; and individual lawyers at other firms who are personally committed to climate action. Yet law firms as a whole with ESG inscribed in their DNA remain a small minority.

While more and more firms are putting environmental and sustainability policies in place when it comes to their internal operations, and the bigger demand for sustainability and climate change-related advice has also created growing service offerings in this space, few firms are considering the environmental and climate impact of the work they undertake for clients.

As unsubstantiated green credentials will increasingly be put under the lens, the concept of advised emissions will gain in importance. These are emissions not directly generated by the law firm itself, but generated by the advice given by the firm to its clients. Looking into the future, as businesses are going to be held increasingly accountable for their contributions to the climate crisis, law firms not taking into account their advised emissions may very well start to have the adverse effect of undermining firms’ sustainability efforts elsewhere.

In other words, firms are continuing to take on mandates connected to high-emitting activities while at the same time promoting their sustainability practices. The next big transition in firms’ sustainability journeys will require a closer look not only at operational emissions – which will be comparatively small – and capacity building in relevant areas of practice, but ensuring the provision of climate-aware advice across the board.


Anna Bauböck, Editor, The Legal 500 Global Green Guide