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Lifting the game on corporate social responsibility

Lifting the game on corporate social responsibility

By Karin Derkley

Practice Management 

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Law firms are lifting their game on corporate social responsibility measures, but air travel continues to be a sticking point for firms trying to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Members of the Australia Legal Sector Alliance (AusLSA) have improved their performance in the proportion of women partners in their firm, diversity and inclusion measures, LGBTI support, legal pro bono programs and availability of flexible working arrangements, according to its 2019 Sustainability Update.

But while members managed to reduce their overall greenhouse gas emissions in the past few years, travel-based emissions have increased by 15 per cent since 2015.

The Sustainability Update measures the Alliance’s 38 members, representing more than 20,000 employees, across a range of criteria. AusLSA is part of a global movement and cooperates and shares information with the Legal Sustainability Alliance of England & Wales and the Law Firm Sustainability Network, based in the US.

AusLSA general manager Richard Jennings says AusLSA members, which represent around 75 per cent of top 50 law firms, recognise the importance of improving sustainability of the Australian legal sector.

“There’s a huge commitment within the legal sector to improve things,” Mr Jennings says. “Law firms want to do the right thing, and customers are now requiring law firms to show their commitment to environmental and social performance in their tenders.”

In addition, a new generation of law graduates and existing lawyers have higher expectations that the law firms they work for will align with their values, Mr Jennings says.

AusLSA provides members with the resources and tools to monitor their performance and deliver improvements across a range of corporate social responsibility criteria, and also provides public reporting of how members are performing against their commitments.

Overall, members improved across the four areas of People, Environment, Community and Governance, the report found. 91 per cent of AusLA members now have a policy to address gender equality issues compared to 80 per cent of the total legal profession, and 64 per cent have targets to improve gender equality compared to 48 per cent of the wider profession. That has translated to significant improvements in some areas - for instance, gender ratios for female partners have increased from 26 per cent in 2016 to 34 per cent in 2019.

However, while total carbon emissions reduced by by 3.5 per cent over the past year, on top of the 28 per cent reduction since 2015, travel based emissions were down only 1.3 per cent for the year and are up 15 per cent since 2015, representing 55 per cent of gross total emissions by AusLSA members.

Mr Jennings says more energy efficient offices and equipment are to explain for the overall reduction in carbon emissions. But even while the use of electronic communication such as teleconferencing and video meeting facilities has increased significantly, firms are still flying their people to meet far-flung clients in person. “I guess firms are not seeing things like tele-conferencing as a substitute for actually meeting clients face to face,” he says.

To compensate for high travel emissions, firms are increasingly opting to purchase carbon offsets, he says. “And while we prefer members to go through the responsible process of reducing consumption first, carbon offset programs – such as tree planting or land regeneration programs – can also be valuable ways to help not just reduce carbon emissions but also to contribute to habitat renewal, employment and community regeneration as well.”

Read the Legal Sector Sustainability Update 2019 here


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