Climate law in Practice Fireside Chats: David Hunter

On 27 January 2022, the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law, Net Zero Lawyers Alliance, and Centre for Climate Engagement hosted the first in a series of ‘fireside chats’ focussed on climate law in practice. These chats aim to share perspectives from leading lawyers who are tackling climate change, and inspire students to do the same in their future careers. In the first chat, Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger was joined by David Hunter from Bates Wells, who has significant experience working with charities and community organisations on causes including climate action.

How did you shape your legal career to address causes like climate change?

After study English at university and working in London for a year, David decided to pursue a career in law and undertook a training contract at a Magic Circle firm. He enjoyed the adrenalin of the transactional work and quality of training at a large City firm, but moved to Bristol soon after qualification and, once established as a partner in a national practice based there, eventually started to work fewer days per week. This gave David the chance to get involved in social enterprises and charitable causes, and he later joined Bates Wells attracted by the firm’s particular strength working with charities and purpose-driven organisations.

Bates Wells helped have sustainable development recognised as a charitable objective by the Charity Commission and worked with the government to create the Community Interest Company social enterprise model. It is a pioneer for the B Corp movement in the UK, becoming a B Corp itself in 2015. Climate change naturally became part of the firm’s focus on positive impact. In addition to setting its own net zero target, Bates Wells is looking beyond even Scope 3 emissions to its broader impact on climate change, including the ‘carbon brainprint’ of its lawyers and their advice.  As the urgency of the climate crisis becomes clearer and clearer, David sees climate change as a bigger part of the firm’s agenda and an important challenge for the legal sector as a whole. David observed that this means that there are more opportunities than ever for lawyers to play their part in the net zero transition.

“What has the greatest potential for positive or negative impact is how we’re responding to the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis.”

How do you see law firms getting involved in climate litigation and other high-profile climate action?

Climate litigation is a broad theme that cuts across many different areas of law. While David has not been involved in litigation based on technical environmental regulations, he has seen climate change become a key aspect of disputes and transactions in other parts of law. For example, climate change will impact the value of pension funds, which in turn impacts the legal duties of pension fund trustees.

David stressed that law firms’ impact on the net zero transition does not always have to be adversarial. Often, the law needs to be clarified in order for actors to have confidence in prioritising emissions reduction and contributing to the net zero transition. Seeking clarification or guidance from courts on relevant points of law might therefore be just as important as winning cases against specific polluters. Firms can also direct their lobbying and advocacy activity to causes that will foster the innovation and transformation required to mitigate the climate emergency.

What has your experience been working at a B Corp, particularly with regards to community engagement?

B Corps must effectively consider a wide range of stakeholders and are assessed on this in order to retain their certification. Initial steps included considering the firm’s impact on its own staff, entities in its supply chain, and the physical environment. Fostering community engagement can be more difficult, but Bates Wells did so by establishing partnerships with local charities and schools, sourcing products and services from local suppliers where possible, and encouraging staff to get involved in activity local to the firm. David saw a significant difference between this holistic approach to measuring impact and the traditional industry standard of assessing success by profit-per-partner.

What steps should students aiming for a career in climate law take to achieve this goal?

David stressed that there is no single mould for a ‘climate lawyer’ – people can get involved in climate law in many different ways, for example at the policy level, at a specialist firm, or as part of a broader corporate practice. Indeed, as John Kerry said: “We are all climate lawyers now”. The right path for a prospective climate lawyer might vary depending on how they want to engage in this field during their career.

Speaking from his own experience, David thought that the depth and breadth of experience from training at a large firm prepared him very well for dealing with these issues later in his career, even though climate action and other charitable causes were not a key focus of his training. Of course, students with an interest in specific aspects of climate law should seize opportunities at specialist firms and organisations when they arise.

“Climate law can mean many things … you can do that through working at a policy level, you can do it through litigation, you can do it through corporate practice, you can do it through investment. There are many routes.”

What can law students do while still at university to contribute to climate action?  

By attending events like this series of chats and letting their voices be heard, or even organising their own initiatives, law students have the chance to get involved in the climate conversation early. Additionally, taking the time at university to learn about and discuss climate change and its implications will help equip students to develop the necessary tools to begin a career in climate law. David mentioned that this may involve going beyond just understanding how climate change is relevant to legal study – learning from and working with other relevant academic disciplines is vital to solving a problem as multifaceted as climate change.