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Sustainability and Inclusion in the Legal Sector: Professor Miranda K. Brawn

“Meeting these challenges requires an inclusive approach and a broad diversity of perspectives where the future of law is sustainability.”- says Professor Miranda K. Brawn.

Sustainability has been emphasised as being Imperative for the Legal Profession. Does the law play a role in driving reform in sustainability?

Sustainability has many different definitions. Its essence was articulated by the Brundtland Commission, tasked by the United Nations in 1987 to formulate a global agenda for change. This is where sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 

The future of law is sustainability. The law plays a key role in driving reform in sustainability. The law needs to catch up with society's standards for sustainable practices and converge over the coming years around a set of self-regulatory best practices. Our existing frameworks are struggling to address today’s challenges, and a concerted effort at reform is needed to accelerate a transition to a sustainable future. Every facet of living sustainably is governed and affected by the law. Yet currently, there is limited discourse and focus on the role of law in driving sustainability and the legal profession is largely absent in the domestic and international business, economic and political forums that convene to discuss related issues.

The law communicates values and these values inform and underpin a rational and fair expectation of how power should be organised, exercised and controlled at a private and public level. International law must enshrine common global values, such as those found in the Sustainable Development Goals and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as nation states seek to agree common frameworks, business seeks to establish new standards, and markets look to allocate capital effectively in the transition towards sustainability.

The law also helps to sets standards, which should reflect the expectations of society. The result is a culture of businesses self-regulating in relation to environmental, social and governance (ESG). The law needs to catch up with society’s standards for sustainable practices and converge over the coming years around a set of self-regulatory best practices to allow businesses to transition to sustainability smoothly.

Holding bad actors to account with the support of courts, tribunals and regulatory authorities is another central function of the law. However, governments must allocate sufficient funding and resources to those investigating and prosecuting bad actors causing environmental and social harms, otherwise a gap emerges between what the law sets out to do, and what it can actually accomplish.

What are some of the practices that lawyers should incorporate?

Sustainability allows humans to live and prosper in harmony with nature rather than, as we have for centuries, at nature’s expense. Nonetheless, sustainability does not now have an adequate or supportive legal foundation, in spite of the many environmental and natural resources laws that exist. If we are to make significant progress toward a sustainable society, much less achieve sustainability, we will need to develop and implement laws and legal institutions that do not now exist, or that exist in a much different form. As clients in government, business, and non-governmental organizations increasingly demand legal work that addresses sustainable development issues, lawyers and policy makers are now responding to that demand. 

The legal profession is at the threshold of fundamental change. An era of innovation is disrupting and overturning old ways of organising and working, presenting new challenges and opportunities. The future of our planet is in danger, demanding immediate action. Social inequality and widespread poverty press for new solutions to build a better world. The COVID-19 pandemic that has shaken our world in recent years has put this inequality into stark relief, hitting the world’s vulnerable the hardest. The crisis has also accelerated digitalisation and the transition to a more sustainable way of living. Lawyers are called upon to not only adapt to a changing economy and society, but to lead positive change on a grand scale.

Lawyers have a duty to use the law to accelerate a just transition to sustainability. We face the urgent and escalating challenges testing the boundaries of our planet and upheaving social norms. These include the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a looming global economic crisis, but also existential threats to the fabric that sustains life — our climate, biodiversity and natural systems.

The existing frameworks are struggling to address today’s challenges, and a concerted effort at reform is needed to accelerate a transition to a sustainable future. Central to our thinking is the recognition that today’s challenges are interlinked and cannot be fairly or sustainably resolved by focusing on a single target, such as restricting 1.5 degrees global warming. To live sustainably means to tackle inequality, biodiversity loss, discrimination and political polarisation, to support innovation, collaborations and education and to hold bad actors to account.

As practitioners of law, it is our responsibility to make the case for the law’s importance and value. The law forms and an integral part of society and reflects its values, priorities and progress. As lawyers, it is our responsibility to make the case for the contribution the law can make. Now is the time to move from the age of instruction to the age of anticipation. This includes to be pro-active, harness the law’s potential and unlock possibilities others do not see.  The time to act is now, otherwise we will miss the challenges of our generation and irremediably jeopardise the wellbeing of future generations. The legal profession, with its privileged access to all facets of society, is uniquely placed to further global sustainability goals. Lawyers cannot do it alone. We must work together with legal associations and community organisations around the globe to build a more sustainable profession. A profession that has both the singular ability and a solemn duty to contribute to a more sustainable future.

This driving principle was embraced by all nations when the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015, forming a blueprint to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and prosperity for all by 2030. To contribute to achieving these goals, we are in need of a sustainability-minded legal profession, aware of the most urgent needs for our digitalised and globalised world. Lawyers must support change, and also be the change. Lawyers must develop new skills, as well as be more conscious of their own ecological impact and that of their clients. Lawyers must use their knowledge for the greater good, providing solutions to environmental and social challenges. Lawyers must stand up for human rights, help break down the barriers to justice and resist threats to the independence of the profession. Meeting these challenges requires an inclusive approach and a broad diversity of perspectives where the future of law is sustainability.

Why is inclusive approach important in the legal sector?


Inclusive teams reflect the diversity in our communities, which means that they can make better decisions and find more innovative solutions. This is key to a positive legal sector culture, profitability, and growth. Diversity and inclusion are increasingly important in the legal sector business models, driven by client and stakeholder demand, corporate responsibility, recruitment, promotion and retention success.


The UK legal market has showed it was serious about improving diversity and inclusion in law firms by introducing the Mansfield Rule. Firms seeking Mansfield Rule Certification must show that when hiring for leadership roles, and inclusion in formal pitch presentations to clients, they consider candidate pools that are at least 30 per cent female, from minority ethnic backgrounds, with disabilities or who identify as LGBTQIA+. This national move reflects an industry-wide shift. However, the pace of change is slow.


Minority ethnic representation in full equity partnerships has risen by a maximum of 1.1 percentage points from 2021 to 2022, and as of May 2022 constitutes just 17 per cent of lawyers, while disabled lawyers, and those educated in state schools, are still substantially under-represented compared with the UK workforce average.


Prioritising diversity and inclusion in legal sector practices is critical to the sector’s evolution. Simply paying lip service is not enough. Employees and clients want more. They want to know how committed firms are and what action they are taking beyond the talks and sponsoring diversity award events.


With research revealing that the biggest firms also employ the smallest proportion of disabled lawyers, and that the number of partners from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic group is more than four times greater in one-partner firms, the discrepancy issue is coming into sharper focus. Business models increasingly factor in diversity and, what is more, clients are speaking out. Major global companies have warned they will seek alternative instruction or cut fees if racial and gender diversity in the law firms they work with does not improve..


Improving inclusion can result in more rounded advice, which can only be helpful both to firms and their clients. In addition, disrupting bias in the UK legal market can boost performance. Everyone needs to be aware that some conversations around inclusion are difficult and uncomfortable however, as a sector, we need to lead the way for others and ensure that the legal sector and in fact across all workplace sectors are open and accessible to all.

This is the reason behind launching “The Brawn Review: Boardroom Sustainability, Inclusion and Corporate Governance” which is an independent research report which I am completing while lecturing, mentoring and researching at Oxford University as a Senior Visiting Fellow in residence. This has to be led from the top which starts in the Boardroom. The outcome will be a guide published in 2023 on what our focus should be which is how firms can become more inclusive and sustainable across all sectors not just in the legal sector. 


Once you have a diverse workforce then what? You need to focus on making the workforce more inclusive and sustainable so your diverse workforce feels like they belong while being valued and respected for their diverse opinions, background and experience. Otherwise, it is just a tokenism box ticking exercise especially if all your diverse staff are at junior levels. The market is finding across all sectors that a high number of their diverse staff (mostly at junior levels) are leaving the firm after a few years (and for some after a few decades) when they realise that there is limited access for their career progression to reach senior levels. This is key to hiring diverse senior lawyers and professionals at boardroom, c-suite and partner level because this also serves as an example for diverse employees at junior levels to know what is possible for them in the future based upon their own merit, determination, persistence and hard work.


What are the benefits of sustainability in the legal sector?


Sustainability will benefit across all sectors not just in the legal sector. These include the strengthening of community bonds, improve quality of life and provide hope for a better, equal and just future. Environmentally, sustainable practices can help protect natural resources, mitigate and adapt to climate change and promote biodiversity for future generations to ensure the long-term sustainability of planet Earth.


Professor Miranda K. Brawn

Multi-Sector Portfolio Non-Executive Director in the Boardroom, Lecturing, Mentoring and Researching ‘The Brawn Review’ at Oxford University, Media Contributor, International Public Speaker, Investor, Philanthropist supporting various charities, Launched UK registered Charity called The Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Foundation, Success Coach, Lawyer, Brand Ambassador/Stylist, Author completing her First Book with Hollywood Interest, Former Model, Investment Banker and Hedge Fund Sales Trader. 


January 2023