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Law Firms' Implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

This discussion paper, produced just after the endorsement of the Guiding Principles, addresses legal professionals key responsibilities when it comes to human rights, and identifies leading practices.

November 2011 | Advocates for International Development | Pages: 30

This summary is excerpted from the resource.


As businesses, law firms have the responsibility to “know and show” that they are respecting human rights. This is a core component of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recently endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council. These principles implement the authoritative Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework developed by Professor John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights, and follow six years of research, consultation and road testing. They, and the Framework they implement, have enjoyed wide uptake worldwide, as seen in their application by businesses, trade associations, governments, national human rights institutions, international standard setting organisations, investor benchmarks, multi-stakeholder initiatives and NGO advocates.

Law firms have played an active role in supporting the development of the Guiding Principles and are advising companies on their application. Counselling clients on their need to take effective steps to prevent and remediate negative human rights impacts is a key means through which law firms can meet their own responsibility to respect human rights. This can be a win-win-win for firms, their clients, and society.

However, it does not appear that any of the world’s largest law firms has a publicly available, high-level policy commitment to respect human rights in the management of its business, and very few firms meaningfully communicate their impacts on human rights to affected stakeholders. Firms are just beginning to grapple with the fact that, as businesses, they have their own responsibilities not to infringe on human rights through their own operations and through their business relationships. This requires a close look at law firms’ practices with respect to employees, supply chains and clients.

In meeting their responsibility to respect, meaning to avoid infringing on human rights and to address negative impacts with which they are involved: Guiding Principle 11, law firms face unique challenges, particularly in relation to how they deal with clients that have not respected human rights, given the longstanding tradition of lawyers adopting a position of neutrality, advocating zealously for their clients, and operating within a framework of legal privilege and confidentiality, which are embedded in legal codes of conduct that lawyers must adhere to.

However, if law firms are truly committed to operating in line with the Guiding Principles, they must be prepared to seek answers to difficult questions, related not only to client engagement, but also to their employment practices and their supply chains, including:

  • How can law firms respect human rights relating to favourable work conditions, while operating on a billable hours working structure?
  • How can a law firm avoid being deemed complicit in the human rights impacts of a supplier or client?
  • Under what circumstances should a law firm terminate its relationship with a supplier or client?
  • How can law firms show that they are respecting human rights?
  • How can a law firm align itself with the Guiding Principles while also being consistent with the requirements of legal professional codes?

These were a few of the questions that some of the world’s leading law firms grappled with when they came together for a roundtable event organised by Advocates for International Development (A4ID) to discuss the ways in which the Guiding Principles apply to them as businesses.

The meeting was chaired by John Sherman, Secretary, General Counsel and Senior Advisor to Shift, an independent, non-profit centre for business and human rights practice, staffed by a team that was centrally involved in writing and shaping the Guiding Principles and chaired by Professor Ruggie.

By discussing concrete issues related to law firms’ practices, the meeting was able to draw out areas of consensus, and issues that require further work. These included:

  • The need for high-level human rights policy commitments by law firms that are fully integrated into the firm’s corporate governance structure.
  • The need to fill gaps in law firms’ human rights due diligence processes.
  • The need for guidance regarding the steps that firms should take to avoid being deemed complicit in any adverse human rights impacts of suppliers and clients.
  • The need to address the relationship between the Guiding Principles and the professional legal standards of conduct to which lawyers must adhere.
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