A variety of law firms are drawing up ethics and ESG policies as they attempt to navigate an increasingly politicised business environment.
Simmons & Simmons, Hill Dickinson, CMS and Katten Muchin Rosenman are finalising policies and frameworks to assess incoming client matters against firm values and ESG agendas.
The policies come at a time where employees and clients are increasingly calling on firms to be accountable and take a stance on ethical and environmental issues.
Simmons & Simmons took the decision to set up a policy framework to assess new matters against its values at the start of 2022. This process involves putting in place a global policy which enables the firm “to understand more clearly the impact” its clients have “on people or planet”, the firm said.
Currently the firm is in the process of building out the details of the framework and is deciding on sectors it may exclude working in should they pose a high risk to its ESG stance.
It will also assess individual matters. It is establishing a senior decision making forum named the New Business Committee, where complex decisions will be brought for discussion and decisions made as to whether to proceed.
U.K. top 50 firm Hill Dickinson is also in the process of developing a set of assessment criteria when reviewing its clients and matters from an ESG perspective.
In particular, the criteria will examine subjects related to carbon reduction targets, environmental certifications, commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5°C and adherence to sustainability principles.
Meanwhile, CMS and Katten Muchin Rosenman are both in the process of establishing ESG-related policies.
CMS is developing an ESG Charter to “develop our internal net zero commitments” and “bring the best advice to our clients”, said the firm, whilst Katten is formalising its ESG approach.
Katten is starting with a full audit of the firm’s business globally. The firm said it will first assess “where we currently are” to inform a “step by step approach to where we want to be”. This involves finding out what’s important to all stakeholders, an ESG audit and market research.
The four firms are part of a handful who are taking steps, according to a survey by Law.com International.
Some firms said they already have similar policies in place. For example, Clifford Chance has a system that assesses the likelihood and consequences of risks materialising when accepting work, according to the firm. Eversheds Sutherland has a partner-led committee which reviews all prospective clients deemed to pose a particular risk, including from an ethical perspective, as well as a recently-formed ethics committee which debates different sectors, clients and work types and formalises the parameters to be applied when accepting clients and matters.
But the issue remains sensitive, with many other firms declining to comment.
The legal industry has struggled to deal with recent geopolitical turmoil. Firms have been forced to decide whether they want to be associated with certain clients, and the reputational implications that may come with acting for them.
Most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced many international firms to take a stance, with all international firms shutting their bases in Russia and many refusing to work for Russian and Belarusian clients. In Asia, national security laws in Hong Kong has seen firms such as Davis Polk & Wardwell pull out of related events following heavy scrutiny.
Meanwhile in the U.S., heavyweight Kirkland & Ellis defined its position on gun and weaponry issues, saying that it would no longer represent clients in Second Amendment matters. It came as two established partners left the firm just hours after winning in the U.S. Supreme Court for the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association.