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.