Q&A: Brendan Bateman – “I can tell you that our sustainability commitment is seen as a strategic part of the firm’s vision.”
In this Q&A, Brendan Bateman, co-chair of the Australian Legal Sector Alliance (AusLSA) and partner in the Environment & Planning Group at Clayton Utz, explains how law firms can start their sustainability journey; what issues are on the radar; and why business travel remains a headache for environmentally conscious law firms.
You have a key role as co-chair of AusLSA, an industry-led association that promotes sustainable practices across the legal sector. What sparked your interest in sustainability issues?
I’ve been active in the environment space for 25 years. Even before it became a trendy area, I was practising in environment law and then, with the emergence of climate change as a business issue, I served on the board of the Carbon Market Institute – a group that helps businesses understand and operate within carbon markets – for about eight years before retiring from the position earlier this year.
How are law firms doing on the sustainability front?
I think the legal sector ‘gets’ sustainability, not just in an environmental sense but the broader concept of sustainability. For example, firms are looking at progressive policies around gender equality and Indigenous reconciliation, along with opportunities to partner with community organisations and help the more disadvantaged and marginalised people in our community. This commitment is admirable and, within law firms, there’s growth and maturity about the understanding of what sustainability is and what we can achieve together.
There is some confusion around the term ‘sustainability’. What does it mean to you?
While there is a lot of jargon around sustainability, it can be boiled down to a single principle –how do we influence, in a positive way, our natural environment, our communities, our organisations and our people into the future?
The importance of sustainability is reflected in the rise of AusLSA, which since its launch in 2010 has increased firm participation numbers from 8 to 38 of Australia’s largest and most successful law firms. You must be pleased with such participation.
Yes, more than 75 per cent of the Top 50 firms in Australia are now members of AusLSA. Clearly, we want to improve that level of representation, but we do have a critical mass of top-tier, mid-tier and even smaller firms that are genuinely committed to sustainability in all of its forms.
So smaller firms can be involved, too?
Absolutely! AusLSA is not just for the big firms. We want to avoid having a one-size-fits-all approach. The idea is to provide a framework and reporting tool that allows all law firms to learn about and build on their sustainability efforts, while having benchmarks and clarity around the assessment and measurement of sustainability impacts. It really lets firms identify opportunities and possible risk areas, but they have flexibility as to how they address sustainability within their organisations. We can also provide assistance for firms that are seeking to complete their sustainability assessments.
What is the real benefit of having an entity such as AusLSA?
In the past, a number of law firms had been quite forward-thinking and developed their own approaches to sustainability. However, because they were acting independently, the legal sector’s response was considered to be quite ad hoc. So we can benefit from a collaborative approach, we encourage all firms to become members of AusLSA and start the reporting process so they become more familiar with it. There’s strength through the transparency of reporting.
You have said in the past that, for Clayton Utz, doing nothing in a climate of economic, social and environmental change is not a competitive strategic option. Tell us about the firm’s sustainability commitment.
Well, we are proud to be a founding member of AusLSA and it’s been a very positive association. Clayton Utz has a strong reputation in the sustainability space, including initiatives around energy efficiency. With the building we’re currently in, for example, a conscious decision was made to occupy a 6-star sustainability rating building that is at the cutting-edge in terms of reducing our impact on the environment through initiatives such as a centralised bin system in our most populous office, Sydney, which cuts down on the amount of non-biodegradable plastic bin liners that we send to landfill.
With the support of AusLSA, we have expanded on our initial environmental sustainability program to embrace a whole range of other measures, such as our community, our governance, our people, gender equality and Indigenous reconciliation. What this does is provide the firm with a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate leadership, and by that I mean not just being a leading law firm, but leading change as well. We wear our heart on our sleeves – we say this is what we are committed to and we follow it through. There’s always something more to be done.
How else does membership with AusLSA assist firms such as Clayton Utz?
It has helped us achieve a greater level of engagement on sustainability issues, not only with other law firms but also with our people, clients and a host of other organisations. For example, we have worked with Minds Count – a foundation which was set up after law graduate Tristan Jepson took his own life and which addresses mental health issues – as well as the Australian Pro Bono Centre. Such organisations are doing excellent work in the sustainability field and we have developed relationships with them through a collaborative approach. The result is that AusLSA can, without replicating or taking over what other groups are doing, bring all these initiatives together in a single publicly available member sustainability report that we produce each year – the Legal Sector Sustainability Update.
So there is something akin to a snowball effect?
That’s exactly right. We’re stronger than the sum of our parts and, if you take that on board and look at law firms in AusLSA actively collaborating and learning from each other and sharing information, there are plenty more opportunities for us to make a difference to our society and our world.
How does Clayton Utz ensure that sustainability becomes a day-to-day commitment rather than just being part of a mission statement?
We have what are called Footprint Committees in each of our offices that lead the co-ordination of our sustainability activities. They deal with the environmental side, but we also have a Pro Bono and Community Committee which I sit on with other directors. These committees are important because they complement each other as we work to achieve progress and make an impact in different areas. For example, recently through our greenhouse gas emissions and offsetting program, we identified an opportunity to buy carbon offsets from an Indigenous savanna-burning project. That helps improve our carbon offsetting while also providing meaningful financial assistance to Indigenous initiatives. So there is a golden thread through all of this – we know it’s a good thing to do, and we’re all motivated to achieve results. We have an engaged and committed workforce here in relation to sustainability – not just the employees, but the senior leadership team, and that is crucial to success. And I can tell you that our sustainability commitment is seen as a strategic part of the firm’s vision. It is on the same footing as financial performance, and at our annual general meeting our Chief Executive Partner is reporting as much on sustainability performance as financial performance.
Why is it so important – because your partners demand it, because your staff and potential recruits demand it, or because your clients demand it?
All of the above and more. You can look at any number of studies that show that the most successful businesses are those that are looking to the future. They’re looking at where the threats and opportunities exist and in terms of having a more inclusive, more flexible and more open-minded approach to what they do. It’s about how you do business generally, not just the business that you run. In addition, we must remember that the best recruits are expecting their preferred employers to have clear and aligned values. Our people see it as essential that they work for an organisation that not only talks about corporate social responsibility but demonstrates it through their actions, day after day.
You mentioned AusLSA’s Legal Sector Sustainability Update. In the 2019 report (see below), there is evidence of greater gender equity in participating firms. That must be pleasing.
Yes, it’s terrific to see this result, and gender equality is something that Clayton Utz, among other firms, has been conscious of improving over time. But it’s a bigger issue than that – law firms need to be looking at things such as mentoring, flexible work practices, diversity and inclusion, LGBTI support and legal pro bono programs, too. We don’t necessarily think that we have succeeded yet, but it’s heartening to see the progress we’re making.
One of the other big issues identified in the report is mental health. What is happening on this front?
There is no doubt that mental health is a challenge, especially for the legal profession. The AusLSA report notes that the majority of firms have policies to provide practical assistance when dealing with mental health issues. As an example, Clayton Utz recently appointed a National Mental Health Manager, Emma Howard – a first for any law firm in Australia. Emma will help us continue to refine and improve the way Clayton Utz approaches and delivers mental health initiatives, training and education, as a full-time employee of the firm. Recognition is the starting point when looking at the most effective way to help people, along with early intervention. Having the support of the workplace is going to be critical to such early intervention and providing the services that people need at the coalface.
There are some negative findings in this year’s report, too. It points out that business travel emissions for AusLSA members remained comparable with last year, but that during the past five years emissions have grown by 13 per cent. Is that a concern?
We’ve always found business travel to be a real challenge. A mitigating factor is that our members started at a low base in terms of frequency of travel during the global financial crisis and emissions have since risen as the economy has improved. The globalisation of legal services and our member base has also been a contributing factor. While technology is fantastic and can help firms reduce their travel-related emissions, there is no doubt it remains a vexed issue.
Are there any other messages you want to get across on the sustainability front?
Expect Indigenous employment and disability to be on the sustainability radar, along with matters related to the Modern Slavery Act. More generally, though, law firms increasingly understand the benefits of their sustainability efforts and are in a strong position to play a role in changing the sustainability mindsets of both the legal and business communities, as well as our own clients and people through the way they interact with society. Participation by firms in the activities promoted by AusLSA is a positive step for social responsibility, but it also makes good business sense. We want to encourage law firms to join AusLSA and start them on their own journey of sustainability.
Key findings from the 2019 Legal Sector Sustainability Update Australian Legal Sector Alliance Member Report
1. More than 90 per cent of AusLSA members have resourced policies to improve gender equality, flexible working, diversity and inclusion, LGBTI support and legal pro bono programs.
2. Gender ratios for female partners climbed again this year, increasing from 26 per cent in 2016 to 34 per cent in 2019.
3. Gross greenhouse gas emissions reduced by a further 3.5 per cent this year, adding to a 28 per cent reduction since 2015.
4. Members are also embracing the benefits of the paperless office, with an impressive 17 per cent reduction in paper use, delivering an overall 30 per cent reduction since 2016.
5. Ninety-one per cent of AusLSA firms reported having an active physical wellbeing policy or strategy. All members had allocated the responsibility to implement their policy to director or manager within the firm, including those without a policy in place.
6. Eighty-eight per cent of AusLSA members actively supported their employees’ and partners’ participation on boards and administrative positions in not-for-profit community organisations. Seventy-two per cent said their partners and employees currently sat on boards of community organisations.
7. Just under half of the AusLSA members currently have a program or policy to address the sustainability impacts that occur as a result of the products and services they procure; but 93 per cent of these firms have now applied these standards to their existing suppliers as well as when establishing new contracts.