Given we are in the midst of the festive season, it is worth calling to mind a heart-warming Christmas movie that lawyers can no doubt all relate to. Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy In Bruges is a film in which two hitmen end up stuck in the eponymous Belgian town awaiting orders from their boss. As paid assassins, they are mercenaries, obliged to fulfil the demands of the job that they’re tasked with, however personally unpleasant – as the protagonists go on to discover.

Lawyers and mercenaries are not dissimilar creatures. Both professionals seek work primarily upon the basis of being the best gun for hire at the best price – whether facilitating the existence of offshore tax havens or enabling the construction of a “carbon bomb” crude oil pipeline – without any consideration of the ethics of the bargain or the harms resulting from it. Harms which are, of course, externalised to society. Some have even likened this ‘value-neutral’ sectoral practice to a ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for lawyers – despite the fact we are not talking about a principle of ‘first, do no harm’ but rather a ‘do harm – if the price is right – and try not to think about it’.

You can think of this as a naïve code of ethics conceived at a more innocent time. However, the fundamental issue with this approach persisting now is that we, as lawyers and as human beings, exist on a planet which is rapidly outstripping its safe parameters without any inherent means of self-correction. Of course, what we are primarily alluding to is the climate and ecological emergency. It is difficult to put out of one’s mind the plea from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on releasing its synthesis report in March 2023 – possibly the last to be published before we expend the ‘carbon budget’ for maintaining global ‘safe’ temperatures of 1.5°C degrees over the next six years – ‘there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all’.

Make no mistake: the legal industry globally continues to operate in an ecocidal manner. Since the Paris Agreement, 55 law firms have facilitated £1.48trn in fossil fuel projects, more than 2.5 times the amount these firms have facilitated for the renewable energy industry, according to data published by Law Students for Climate Accountability (LS4CA). The effects of this work, predominantly carried out in the Global North, will fall disproportionately on vulnerable populations in the Global South, in the form of coastal flooding, extreme heat events, crop failures, water shortages and the resulting impacts on human health and mass migration.

At present it is culturally acceptable to support the extractive industries, with legal directories such as The Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners celebrating oil and gas work through published rankings of “Rising Stars” and “Eminent Practitioners”. As Lawyers Are Responsible, our Declaration of Conscience was intended to provide a counterpoint to the avaricious culture of our sector and as a call to arms to those who recognise that the practice of law needs to exist within our planet’s limits – that it is irresponsible to assume limitless resources, and that it is immoral for vulnerable populations and future generations to have to unpick the damage caused by us.

For the ‘old guard’: the well-established, the nearly-retired and the partners who think we can carry on as mercenaries regardless hoping that politicians, the media, any other sector will pick up the mantle of responsibility so that we can carry on meeting our billing targets – I am afraid we have some bad news. The problem is that law firms will be held to account for this short-termism – by younger generations.

In October, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) published a report which revealed the devastating effect of the climate emergency on children and young people’s mental health. The findings are harrowing: 49 per cent of UK participants aged 16-25 are either very worried or extremely worried about climate change. 75 per cent of respondents in the same survey globally thought the future was ‘frightening’, and 83 per cent considered humans to have inadequately cared for the planet. Those young people are the trainees and junior associates of tomorrow; some of them may be already undertaking a training contract at your firm.

Students still at university are deeply engaged with the issues and have decided not only to vote with their feet but to help to cut off the pipeline of talent to oil, gas and coal companies altogether.  Some universities, such as Birkbeck and University of the Arts London, have banned fossil fuel companies from their careers services and recruitment opportunities on campus. For those universities who have not taken this step (i.e. the majority), fossil fuel recruiters are now regularly chased off campuses by students rejecting the extractive industries.

In the legal sector, Law Students for Climate Accountability have been making waves with their annual  ‘Climate Scorecard’ and recent report ‘The Carbon Circle: The UK Legal Industry’s Ties to Fossil Fuel Companieswhich not only helps students considering vacation schemes, training contracts and pupillages to identify which firms are linked to the highest levels of fossil fuel transactions but also equips them with questions to ask and points to raise at each stage of the recruitment process. It also warns them to be vigilant of ‘greenwashing’ or firms distorting their likely environmental impacts. When Lawyers Are Responsible covered law fairs this autumn and engaged with students, we found them to be deeply concerned about the issues and open to discussing alternative career paths.

In summary, the danger for law firms who choose not to change course is that young people will vote with their feet by avoiding the law firms that still choose to represent the extractive industries. Poetic justice will see these law firms’ ‘pipeline’ of new talent dry up.

There is another issue here that is worth mentioning, to close. Lawyers are expected, by virtue of our membership of this noble profession, to uphold the rule of law.  The Solicitors Regulation Authority published new guidance for the climate crisis in April 2023 (The impact of climate change on solicitors) which reminds us that where the SRA Principles conflict, we are expected to prioritise those safeguarding the wider public interest (in particular, the rule of law) over the interests of any individual client. Upholding the rule of law in a climate and ecological emergency necessarily requires you to engage with the emergency. We are not and should not act as mercenaries in this context.

Perhaps where this leads us, logically, is into an enquiry into the ethics of the profession itself. But to return to our cosy Christmas movie (and without giving anything more away!) the moral of In Bruges may be that even mercenaries have their codes of ethics which trump what we would normally expect.

Monika Sobiecki is a partner at Bindmans and Natalie Barbosa is a senior associate at Anthony Collins.