Task Force Recommends Stronger ABA Leadership on Sustainability

Posted on September 2, 2014 by John Dernbach

Will the ABA make leadership on issues of sustainability a permanent part of the organization's infrastructure and policy?  That is the key recommendation of the American Bar Association’s Task force on Sustainable Development.  The July 31, 2014 Task Force report recommends that the ABA strengthen its ability to provide leadership on sustainability by creating a sustainability entity within ABA that is directly responsible to the ABA president.  “First and foremost,” the report said, "[the ABA] should establish a permanent infrastructure for integrating sustainability within the ABA over the long term.” 

As recommended by the Task Force, the sustainability entity  would engage "the entire organization and membership, and convey the ABA’s ethic for economic, social and environmental responsibility" under a “leadership team that reports directly to the ABA President.” 

The sustainability leadership entity would be guided by a short “written statement of ABA’s vision and values on sustainability relevant to the legal profession.”   It would be responsible for issuing an “annual report on ABA’s progress toward achieving sustainability” and on “law-related developments” on sustainability.  In addition, it would run an “ABA-wide program of annual awards for exemplary sustainability efforts by lawyers, law organizations, and others.”   Finally, it would be responsible for “[m]aintaining and enhancing the Resource Center” by, among other things, “making it prominently accessible from the ABA homepage.” 

The Task Force recommendation follows from then-ABA President James R. Silkenat’s 2013 charge to the Task Force to “focus on ways that the ABA can provide leadership on a national and international basis on sustainable development issues.”  (See my earlier blog, “ABA Task Force to Help Mainstream Sustainability in Law Practice.”)

The report also described the Task Force’s achievements in its first year.  Chief among these is the creation of an online Resource Center "that is dedicated to provide, on an ongoing basis, sustainable development tools, links, and other information for lawyers and law organizations.” 

The Task Force, which has twenty members (including me) representing the private sector, government, nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations, and academia, is chaired by Lee A. DeHihns, a member of the Environmental & Land Development Group at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, Georgia and a former chair of the ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources.  Although the Task Force was originally established for one year, the ABA Board of Governors has approved the Task Force for a second year.  In its second year, the Task force plans to address three additional areas where greater effort is needed to foster sustainable development: legal education, the role of lawyers, and government. 

On legal education, the task force will consider, among others, a recommendation to “identify specific areas of knowledge and practice skills that current lawyers and law organizations should possess in order to assure the basic understanding of sustainability needed for the competent practice of law in the 21st century.”   It will also consider a recommendation for the development or endorsement of “sustainability education and certification programs (via law schools or [continuing legal education] providers) that would enable lawyers who have taken a specific number of hours of sustainability-related courses to obtain a certificate.” 

On law practice, the task force will consider, among others, a recommendation that the ABA encourage all lawyers to consider ways of incorporating sustainable development into their law practice.   On government, the Task Force will consider specific ways of supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in fostering sustainability, as provided by EPA’s new strategic plan. 

The report notes that lawyers tend to lag behind their clients: “Clients, including business and industry clients, as well as nongovernmental and governmental clients, have become increasingly engaged in sustainability, with growing sophistication and more intensive commitment….[Yet] the legal community has been noticeably absent from meaningful participation in many sustainability ‘communities of practice.’  The Task Force is working to change that dynamic.” 

Of course, the recommendations  in this report are just that: recommendations.  The ABA will decide how to respond to them by following its normal policymaking processes.  However, the establishment of the Resource Center makes it easier for lawyers to obtain relevant information about sustainability.  Keeping the Task Force active for a second year provides an opportunity for continued dialogue. 

ABA Task Force to Help Mainstream Sustainability in Law Practice

Posted on December 4, 2013 by John Dernbach

After more than a decade of laying a foundation for sustainability activities, the American  Bar Association is poised to take its act to a higher level with a presidential level Task Force on Sustainable Development.  The Task Force is intended, in no small part, to help mainstream sustainable development into the practice of law. 

Within the practice of law, there is already a small group of lawyers whose work focuses intensively on sustainable development—including renewable energy and energy efficiency, biodiversity conservation, green building, climate change, and smart growth.  They are doing so in response to growing demand from clients, government, and the private sector, as well as rising public expectations about environmental and social performance.  Yet sustainable development remains something of a mystery to many environmental lawyers.  And some environmental lawyers think they understand sustainability when they do not.

The critical task of sustainable development is to integrate environmental and social considerations and goals into otherwise conventional development decisions.  Environmental goals include reduced greenhouse gas emissions, a smaller overall environmental footprint, climate change resilience, reduced toxicity or pollution, and conservation of species and ecosystems.  Social goals include workforce diversity, employee safety and development, and contribution to charitable or community activities. 

Over the past decade, the American Bar Association has developed two tools to enable lawyers to help lawyers move their offices in a sustainable direction and to recognize law organizations that use them.  They are:

•    The ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge, a program to encourage law offices to conserve energy and resources, as well as reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
•    The ABA Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) Sustainability Framework for Law Organizations, in which a law organization commits to take steps over time toward sustainability.  

In August, the ABA House of Delegates, which has a significant policy-making role, adopted a resolution that builds on these and other steps toward sustainability.  The resolution — the third major resolution on sustainability it has adopted since 1991--“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.”

In conjunction with this resolution, ABA President James R. 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 is chaired by Lee A. DeHihns, a member of the Environmental & Land Development Group at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, Georgia and a former chair of SEER. The Task Force has 20 members (including me), representing government, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and academia.   

The Task Force is planning to create a user-friendly website that contains a variety of sustainability resources for lawyers.  It is also looking at a range of different kinds of educational materials and tools for lawyers and law students on sustainability issues. 

It is increasingly important for lawyers to be able to communicate with clients about sustainability in general, the growing number of sustainability issues that are affecting law practice (including but certainly not limited to climate change), and the ways in which lawyers and others are creating tools and approaches for sustainability.  Law firm innovations for sustainability include the combined use of low income housing tax credits and renewable energy tax credits to finance low income housing that uses solar energy, and legal and financing packages for municipalities that invest in green infrastructure.   

The Task Force is also examining a wide variety of other ways that lawyers and the ABA can “accelerate progress toward sustainability.”  Because the Task Force has one year to complete its work, it is also looking at projects and activities it can complete in that year and longer term projects and activities that can be started in that year but that would need a longer time to finish.  If you have suggestions, contact Lee DeHihns or me.  And stay tuned.