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Law Firms Lag In Adopting Human Rights Policies

Over 291 businesses worldwide have adopted human rights policy statements, and expect their suppliers – including law firms – to adhere to similar standards of conduct.

That’s from a terrific discussion paper published this month by Advocates for International Development (A4ID). Called ‘Law Firms’ Implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights,’ it’s available here.

The paper argues why law firms should adopt and adhere to the Guiding Principles, which come from the U.N. Human Rights Council. The Guiding Principles implement the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework developed by Professor John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights.

‘As businesses,’ A4ID said, ‘law firms have the responsibility to know and show that they are respecting human rights.’

The discussion paper is based on work by A4ID and Harvard’s John Sherman.

According to the paper, the 100 largest law firms in the world ‘collectively had revenues of over $74 billion in 2010, which is probably a small fraction of the value of the transactions that they helped to shape worldwide.’

Seventy-seven of the top 100 firms are based in the U.S. and 12 in the U.K., with the rest based in Australia, Europe, and Canada. In 2010, the U.S. firms on the list employed over 46,000 lawyers.

‘Yet despite their size and influence,’ the paper says with understatement, ‘law firms have not been at the forefront of demonstrating a commitment to manage their own business in accordance with the Guiding Principles.’

Of the 100 biggest law firms:

• None appear to have published a high-level policy statement committing them to respect human rights in the management of their business.

• A tiny handful have signed up to the UN Global Compact, whose first two principles relate specifically to human rights.

• Only two of the firms have published corporate responsibility reports in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines, which set out key performance indicators relating to human rights.

• Only one law firm appears to have published its policy.

Why should law firms adopt human rights standards? Because their clients will demand it. Their reputations will suffer if they don’t. And it’s the right thing to do.

The discussion paper — highly recommended — can be downloaded here.

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