UNGP implications on law firms

Law firms are business enterprises for purposes of the UNGPs and are responsible for respecting human rights at a level appropriate for their size, circumstances, and the impact of their operations and client relationships.  

Law firms are increasingly asked by their clients to validate that, as service providers, they are committed to respecting human rights.

A law firm’s responsibility to respect human rights extends to adverse human rights impacts directly linked to the law firm’s services through a client relationship. The IBA identified the following challenges that business lawyers face in advising clients, whether they are engaged as in-house or external counsel:

  • There is a lack of clarity about soft law issues, with no clear guidance on how to demystify human rights.
  • The legal team lacks specific competence and experience to advise on human rights impacts.
  • Clients seek only advice on narrow, technical legal issues without the benefits and added value of bigger picture risks in which adverse human rights impacts play a role.

These challenges may be particularly acute for law firms and their lawyers as they may have less direct experience dealing with human rights impacts and considerations for their clients than in-house counsel. In addition, the structure of the law firm as a partnership of independent practitioners, may make it more difficult to ensure to equal understanding of, and commitment to, the demands and implications of the UNGPs. To help address these challenges, the IBA Practical Guide contains a useful guide of what law firms need to think about in implementing or advising on the UNGPs.