Sustainability for Lawyers

The American Bar Association, as well as many state and local bar associations, are playing a growing role in mainstreaming sustainable development into the practice of law.  Our environmental and conservation laws–many of which predate the term “sustainability,” are based on recognition that human quality of life and wellbeing depend on the health of their environment and the availability of necessary resources.  The implementation and application of these laws, of course, require lawyers.  What makes sustainable development distinctive is the idea that decision-making for environmental protection and decision-making for development should be systematically integrated.  That often requires actions that go beyond what these laws have required.

Still, a growing number of laws in the United States and around the world reflect this broader understanding.   These laws reflect broader global trends: population growth; continuing economic growth; widespread and increasing environmental degradation; including growing greenhouse gas concentrations; a changing climate; and a growing gap between rich and poor that is caused in part by the disparate effects of environmental degradation.  These trends, in turn, are driving a number of corporations to design programs to reduce the overall environmental footprint of their operations and to foster a “triple bottom line” (not only profits but also environmental and social benefits).

These programs are increasingly enforced through contracts, and compliance with them is even beginning to be required by legislation.  While the U.S. has not adopted comprehensive climate change legislation, there is nonetheless a rapidly evolving law of climate change that combines economic development, job creation, and the reduction of greenhouse gas and other pollutants.  In addition, sustainability tools such as ecosystem services, conservation easements, smart growth, and mixed-use development are being increasingly used in the legal system.  For these and other reasons, a growing number of lawyers include sustainability in their law practice.

Bar associations in California and Pennsylvania have adopted model sustainability programs for law organizations. Oregon Lawyers for a Sustainable Future has published its own model sustainability policy for law offices.  The Law Firm Sustainability Network has a similar program.  These programs are largely, but not entirely, about law office operations, and are less focused on sustainability counseling and advocacy.

In August 2013, the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates adopted its third major resolution on sustainability since 1991.  This resolution takes a broader approach.  The resolution “urges all governments, lawyers, and ABA entities to act in ways that accelerate progress toward sustainability.”  The resolution also “encourages law schools, legal education providers, and others concerned with professional development to foster sustainability in their facilities and operations and to help promote a better understanding of the principles of sustainable development in relevant fields of law.”

At about the same time this resolution was passed, ABA President James Silkenat appointed a Task Force on Sustainable Development to “focus on ways that the ABA can provide leadership on a national and international basis on sustainable development issues.”  The Task Force has 20 members, representing government, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and academia (including Dernbach).

The Task Force issued its Final Report in 2015.  The report provides a detailed description of various sustainable development activities within the ABA.  In addition, the Task Force recommended that the ABA strengthen its leadership position on sustainable development, both nationally and internationally.  It also identified future issues for discussion–concerning legal education, sustainability in the practice of law, and sustainability in governance.

In a 2017 article, Sustainable Development Development in Law Practice: A Lens for Addressing All Legal Problems, Dernbach provides a first assessment of what lawyers who incorporate sustainable development into their law practice actually do.  It explains who their clients are and what they do for them, and provides insight into the dynamics of attorney-client conversations related to sustainability.  In a subsequent article, Lawyering as if Tomorrow Matters, he describes seven different approaches that lawyers can consider to respond constructively to climate change. These suggestions are intended to provoke discussion and reflection about the necessary role of lawyers at an exceptionally important moment in human history.