Time To Fix Legal Industry's Environmental Pro Bono Problem

By Matthew Karmel | April 15, 2022, 4:21 PM EDT ·

Matthew Karmel
Matthew Karmel
As we observe Earth Month, it's time to think about the impact lawyers have on this planet.

Did you know that the percentage of pro bono environmental law work within corporate law departments dropped from a paltry 6% in 2012 to an even more startling 2% in 2020, according to reports from the Corporate Pro Bono Institute?

Or that Law Students for Climate Accountability evaluated the climate impact of Vault 100 law firms in 2020, and determined that only four firms received an "A" climate score?

Apparently, Vault 100 firms worked on 10 times as many cases exacerbating climate change as cases addressing climate change during the period of the survey: 286 cases, compared to 27 cases.

Does the legal industry have a climate problem? I think so. But there is reason for lawyers to be optimistic about the role of the legal industry in addressing climate change.

As the old adage goes, "What gets measured gets managed." And our industry is focusing more and more on its role in addressing climate change, especially as younger workers join the industry and push law firms to become more environmentally conscious.

The ABA and other legal organizations are calling on lawyers to provide more pro bono support for environmental causes. Major law firms have committed to engaging in climate-related pro bono work. And there are several established and emergent organizations working tirelessly to help lawyers address climate change, support sustainability solutions, expand environmental justice initiatives and more.

In 2019, the Environmental Law Institute published "Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States," with more than 1,000 specific actions. The Sabin Center for Climate Change, at Columbia Law School, has followed this up with its Model Laws for Deep Decarbonization in the United States, which are drafted and championed by teams of lawyers across the country.

And the Australian Pro Bono Centre in 2020 issued its "Pro Bono Guide to the Climate Crisis," with 15 different ways that lawyers and law firms can get involved in pro bono work that helps the environment. Clearly there are strong forces within the legal industry devoting resources to climate-friendly pro bono activities.

So why is pro bono within the field of environmental law still lagging behind other practice areas? The Pro Bono Institute identifies potential reasons for the dearth of environmental pro bono, including:

  • The relatively nascent and rapidly developing nature of environmental law and climate change itself, and concern about advising on emergent or unfamiliar issues; and

  • Potential conflicts of interest, whether direct or based on business interests of certain clients, such as where a pro bono opportunity would threaten a client's business model — reminiscent of the claims of the Law Students for Climate Accountability.

In my experience, though, the primary obstacle is connecting attorneys with appropriate pro bono projects. For those of you who are interested in joining the climate-friendly pro bono revolution, here are four trailblazing organizations that can help you find projects:

  • The Environmental Law Institute's Pro Bono Clearinghouse helps lawyers find opportunities to tackle environmental challenges, whether it's assisting a local community form an organization to deal with environmental problems, arguing in front of the local zoning board or filing impact litigation.

  • Green Pro Bono's mission is to help nonprofits and social entrepreneurs define their legal needs and receive legal assistance they could not otherwise afford. From my experience, the organization provides a wealth of opportunities for corporate lawyers to assist with climate-friendly startups and causes — just more proof that all lawyers can do climate-friendly pro bono.

  • Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy is associated with Stanford Law School, and helps entrepreneurs and environmental nonprofits working on sustainability projects find law firms that offer pro bono assistance. Opportunities to help span practice areas: You can provide guidance on incorporation, corporate governance (such as bylaws and policies), contracts, real estate, IP protection, website-related issues (such as privacy policies and terms of use), financing and investment, tax matters, and litigation.

  • The Planetary Lawyer Project aims to show all lawyers, regardless of practice area, how they can do more climate-friendly work, whether pro bono or otherwise.

You can also search general pro bono clearinghouses, such as Probono.net, for environmental pro bono projects, and can even find opportunities on nonlegal clearinghouses like VolunteerMatch and Catchafire. And there are opportunities for lawyers to get involved with nonlawyers who are advancing climate solutions through organizations like Work on Climate.

In the end though, the best and most meaningful way to find pro bono opportunities that help the environment is by getting out into your community and finding the causes that matter to your neighbors, colleagues and friends. I know this has been true for me.

So what are you waiting for? There's no time like the present.

Matthew A. Karmel is counsel at Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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