Sustainable development: questions and answers with Caroline May

You are talking to a friend of a friend at a party. How do you describe what you do?

I have been an environmental lawyer for over 30 years.

During this period, the subject has undergone many transitions, starting mainly by advising on pollution and contamination problems to today advising companies on:

  • environmental impacts
  • corporate reports, and
  • the urgent need to decarbonize and reach net zero

The work is varied and challenging, yet hugely rewarding, and has recently come into the spotlight in law firms after years of being considered a minor specialization. I’ve never been so popular/in demand!

What has been the highlight of your time at Norton Rose Fulbright so far with respect to climate change and sustainability?

I think the highlight for me was being named our firm’s first sustainability partner, responsible for implementing and coordinating the firm’s sustainability management systems, and leading our global advisory offering to clients. in environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) matters.

As a global company, we have the opportunity to lead and innovate in this area, to share and initiate best practices, and to share learnings with our customers as we work together on the challenges facing all businesses.

How have you taken climate action outside of everyday practice and what have you achieved?

As an individual, I have tried to implement sustainable practices in my home life. I am an avid composter and have reduced plastics in my home.

Since the lockdown, I (along with many others) have reduced my personal consumption significantly and want to maintain a more sustainable approach to my shopping in the future. I hate food and packaging waste and do my best to eradicate/minimize it.

Outside of my day-to-day practice, being Chair of the Law Society’s Climate Change Task Force is a privilege and something I hope will help the profession meet the challenge of climate change.

I also co-chair the Legal Sustainability Alliance, a collaboration of leading law firms promoting best practice, and am a trustee of the Aldersgate Group, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working collaboratively with business and politics as well as others. professional services. .

Collaboration will be a big factor in moving this dialogue forward and achieving net zero goals, and I work with some incredibly talented and driven people.

What challenges do you think lawyers face that may prevent them from taking meaningful climate action?

I think a lot of lawyers understand the importance of the issues facing the world, but may struggle to understand how it affects/affects their day-to-day practice (especially if their practice is in an area that may seem unrelated ).

However, I think on closer inspection (and once you start to demystify the agenda), people quickly see how cross-cutting it is and can impact their daily practice and that of their clients. , be it insurance risks, latent environmental liabilities or public health issues such as air/water quality.

I believe that lawyers seek guidance as to their role and how they can help on behalf of the profession, but also so that they can be effective advisers to their clients. This is where the role of the Climate Change Task Force comes in.

We are a representative group of specialist lawyers responsible for examining the main areas of risk and the ethical and professional issues involved, and promulgate solutions/recommendations often in conjunction with members of the Bar and other professional bodies.

We hope to be able to assist lawyers and provide them with the basics to respond to this program in a way that matches professional responsibilities and client needs. Lawyers can also be effective advocates for change in both the law and its application/enforcement.

Regarding the generational challenges that climate change and sustainability present to businesses, what norms and practices have you seen changing over the years, and what changes lie ahead?

I think the pandemic has had the effect of bringing about fundamental changes in the profession and the way we work that are here to stay. The use of technology and the advent of Zoom meetings have negated the need for daily commutes or international business trips that were once considered necessities.

I think all of this challenging of previous standards can unlock meaningful change for the profession, with diversity and inclusion and sustainability becoming key drivers in the workplace.

I was one of the first female partners in my firm to wear pants in the office (and that wasn’t too long ago!), so the accelerated pace of change has been profound. I think this is an exciting time for lawyers starting out in their careers to make real change, not only on the climate change agenda, but also on their working environment and the way business will be conducted in the future. ‘coming.

As their career develops (with many more opportunities ranging from private practice to in-house, public sector and academia) and as they take on higher positions, the challenge will be to avoid reproducing the stereotypes of the past and to be more open to change.

The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) will affect everyone’s life and customers will demand the profession respond – so it will be an exciting yet challenging future. This may always have been the case, but rather it is the pace of change and the opportunities it presents that are accelerating today.

Society has realized the powerful and compelling role that young voices can play in tackling the climate crisis. What role can senior voices play in the legal sector?

I think senior management can help frame the debate and maybe balance some of the issues with a more rounded approach.

I also think that senior leaders can listen and advocate for young people, and show empathy and support in a way that was perhaps lacking when I started my career, when structures were much more hierarchical than they were. are not today.

As always, collaboration and teamwork are key. I think empowering and driving innovation while providing a framework for development can be a way forward. Advocating for and supporting those starting out is a responsibility that all senior leaders should share.

What differentiates lawyers from other professionals in that they are empowered to take meaningful climate action?

I think the law and the role of lawyers are still highly respected both in society at large and in the business world (lawyer jokes aside!).

We have a powerful – and I believe respected – voice and with that comes the responsibility to bring about change and influence the debate. We are trained to analyze evidence and debate, and to review new laws and their application. These are all key areas for framing the climate change debate and bringing about real change.

What advice would you give, or what existing resources would you highlight, to legal professionals who want to start taking climate action but may not know where to start?

There is so much information out there, so I would suggest those interested in learning more check out respected information sources first. The Law Society’s climate change page provides useful reference sources.

The Legal Sustainability Alliance also has a lot of content that can be useful for lawyers as well as other NGOs, such as the Chancery Lane project, where sample wording and clauses are offered free to the market.

Additionally, members of the task force are always ready to help with any request or problem, and there are ongoing educational programs at many organizations that are free to those who wish to participate.

What book is on your bedside table?

I’m diving into two books right now. The first is by Naomi Klein, known as It changes everything. It is about the economics of climate change and challenges the way our society operates and values ​​things.

The second is my other great love: The brilliant career of Roger Federer by Christopher Clarey, tennis correspondent for the New York Times.

What is your greatest hope for the legal profession?

That we remain relevant and proactive in the modern world and that we are seen to add value, not only to legal services, but also to society.

In rare moments of calm, how do you relax?

As one of my book picks reveals, I am a tennis fan, both player and spectator. I have played for over 50 years at different levels and am still an active team player for my club.

I love the game and Roger Federer is my favorite player. His style, determination and general demeanor are perfect for the game, and he’s a fantastic role model for the younger generation. When I retire, I want to attend all four Grand Slams in one calendar year.

Outside of tennis, I enjoy theatre, reading, walking, gardening and more recently bird watching – as a group of red kites have nested in our garden.