The Honorable John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate was the keynote speaker at the American Bar Association‘s annual meeting on August 4, 2021. Kerry spoke about the role of lawyers in addressing climate change and its effects. He cited the ABA’s commitment to climate change. Kerry mentioned a 2019 resolution of the ABA House of Delegates that strongly encouraged governments at all levels to recognize their obligation to address climate change and to act. In the past few years, almost every large law firm has established an ESG (environmental, social, and governance) or Sustainability practice group.
Not surprisingly, then, Kerry emphatically stated, “You are all climate lawyers now.“
But are we?
No. Sure, we see a proliferation of ESG and Sustainability practices and a mad scramble for legal talent in these areas. It’s become a game of Keeping up with the Joneses. For these reasons, It’s easy to think almost all lawyers have found their new calling to to do something about climate risk, ESG (environmental, social, and governance), and sustainability.
However, the vast majority of these new ESG and sustainability attorneys are new to the topic. They didn’t know what ESG or sustainability meant a few years ago. Many barely paid attention to these issues until Covid hit. Moreover, most attorneys dismissed the importance or relevance of these topics just five years. Still, they now see a huge opportunity. Why? Because of increased investor interest in ESG reporting, the rise of ESG ratings and rankings, and ESG and sustainability disclosure requirements being considered by the SEC.
Some lawyers are ready to be Climate Lawyers
At the same time, some lawyers are ready to address the legal aspects of climate change. Kerry mentioned a few ways that lawyers can be part of the solution:
- Lawyers will help people displaced by hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters.
- Bankruptcy lawyers can assess the infrastructure risk to their clients and suggest better planning.
- Lawyers will help to expedite renewable energy and innovative solutions for decarbonization. Relevant practice areas include financing, land use, intellectual property, and procurement.
Further, Kerry pointed out that climate change is related to law, economics, and culture. Some lawyers are ready to advise on these interrelationships because they have embraced the core principles of ESG for many years. These attorneys are concerned about climate change. They care about how their clients’ actions affect the environment and society. In addition, they understand that what their clients do on ESG and sustainability issues affects value creation.
Park Legal, PC, is a Climate Change Law Firm
How can I say that Park Legal is a Climate Change Law Firm? Among other things, I have been working on climate risk, ESG, and sustainability for more than 10 years. My interest began in the mid-2000s while I was an associate at Cotchett, Pitre, and McCarthy. During that time, I learned about environmental problems and the growing concern over climate risk. At Rimon Law, I was Chief Sustainability Officer and led the firm’s efforts to maintain its status as a Certified B Corporation.
Next, at SASB (Sustainability Standards Board, now part of the Value Reporting Foundation), I was the Director of Legal Policy and Outreach. In that capacity, I engaged with lawyers at large law firms, corporate governance groups (e.g., NACD), boards of directors, the SEC and other regulators, corporate social responsibility and sustainability officers, accountants and their professional societies (e.g., AICPA), and executives.
SASB’s research process surfaced climate as a potentially material factor in more than 2/3 of all industries. In particular, the effects of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions emerged as prospective material topics that a company should manage and report on.
At the American Bar Association, I served as the Co-Chair of the Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Disclosure and Reporting Committee and contributed to the Subcommittee on Corporate Social Responsibility. Also, I led the External Disclosure and Engagement Focus Group of the Sustainability and Governance Committee.
Many of the groups and individuals that I spoke with denied or downplayed the potential materiality of ESG from a securities law perspective. They were highly concerned about voluntarily disclosing ESG information in SEC filings or to investors. Nor did they think that climate and ESG factors had much relevance to their companies.
Today, awareness of these topics among all of the groups — including lawyers — has changed remarkably, and investors are driving the change. However, prominent ESG attorney Paul Wacthman, Special Legal Adviser at UNEP Principles of Sustainable Development Net Zero Insurance Underwriters Alliance, notes that some attorneys are trying to become climate, ESG, and sustainability experts by taking short courses from a university or professional organization. Although that is a start, Wachtman argues that you can’t hack the process of becoming an ESG attorney.
Over many years, I have obtained a multidisciplinary perspective and knowledge of climate risk and ESG. My passion for, and understanding of, climate change and ESG in their multifaceted dimensions has grown.
I am a climate lawyer.