From Bates Wells to Bates Wells Being the Change: Change Makers not Change Takers

“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” These are the words of Jonas Salk, one of the twentieth century’s great scientists. Until recently, many might have reasonably taken this to mean leave your kids comfortably off and don’t embody Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse. As the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis loom over us though, that responsibility takes on a more existential flavour. 

Sectors
Impact Economy
Type
Opinion

The impacts of climate change will affect everything we do. It contributes to biodiversity loss, will exacerbate water and food shortages, cause mass internal migrations and create millions of international refugees; coastal cities will disappear and geo-political tensions are likely to increase. This is not the worst case scenario. This is what the science tells us is inevitable now (even if the consensus is not to present it so starkly). The urgency is around limiting its effects so that they are not an order of magnitude worse. Alongside this, the UN’s leading research body on nature has just announced urgent action is necessary to reverse the loss of plants, insects and other creatures on which humanity depends for food, pollination, clean water and a stable climate, as the planet’s life-support systems are approaching a danger zone for humanity.

This is a critical turning point in human evolution. Even though we have left it too late to avert climate change and the Sixth Extinction (effectively failing as the oft quoted “first generation to understand the impact of human activity and the last with the ability to do something about it”), there is still much to be done to limit their worst effects. What these twin threats demonstrate is the interconnected nature of the world we live in. Not only do climate change and biodiversity loss exacerbate one another; they are each a product of a culture and economy which treats nature as inert material existing for human exploitation and not fellow elements of a living world which we are part of and have a practical, as well as moral, duty to protect. (This does not mean businesses and markets have to be demonised. It does mean that they have to return to their place in humanity’s toolkit and be recognised as subsidiary to a greater focus on more mutually nourishing relationships between the human and more than human).

This has put us in the position where fundamental change to our lives is inevitable and we have the choice of seeking to influence that change in ways which may benefit ourselves, our loved ones and society more widely, or clinging to what we know, dealing with what is in front of us and leaving the future for others to cope with.

Change is challenging for most people. Behavioural economics tells us the majority prefer not to risk losing something they have, for the sake of a potentially greater gain in the future. This is true for lawyers for a variety of reasons. We have often worked long hours for many years to build the knowledge and expertise to be good at what they do and do not like to be told the goalposts, indeed the pitch, is moving. We are often too busy to pause to reflect, never mind to learn not so much new skills as a new way of being. We often value stability and the social standing that comes with our profession and do not want to feel this jeopardised.  

All of this explains why the typical response of most lawyers to a call to change voluntarily the way we approach work is to resist. This might not be explicitly. Quite possibly, it will be by intending to think about changing but to find ourselves just too busy to carve out the time it needs. This may be easy to do, in the short term too, as (often the case with climate change) it is not evident anything decisive is happening or required.

Our day to day practice may not have to change that much initially. What needs to change though is attitudinal: what we bring of ourselves to our work, the attention we give to the implications of our actions, our colleagues’ actions, our clients’ actions (and inactions in each case) and our willingness to engage with those implications. We need to be enquiring and supportive. We are all in this together, none of us knowing what the solutions are (something which is scary generally, and particularly for lawyers), perhaps wondering if something is wrong with us for feeling that the world is, as Shakespeare had it, “out of joint”.

Having acknowledged this will all feel very alien to people generally and possibly lawyers in particular, lawyers in fact have qualities that may be just what we need right now. They are often creative (even if in the office that quality can be left dormant for long periods), often have a reasonably strong moral compass (though this can become buried beneath commercial and professional baggage) and are usually industrious. The situation we are facing may demand that lawyers access parts of their personalities that they have not had much call for during most of their professional lives. This may feel uncomfortable initially, but quickly may become liberating.

Much has been said about purpose of late, in relation to businesses generally, and our firm in particular. Purpose can be pretty subjective, but if (as I think we are signed up to collectively) we want to have a positive social impact, then what could be more meaningful than learning together how to do this in ways which contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss? More than any professional services firm I know, Bates Wells is well placed to become a learning organisation, embarked on a collective journey to be the change we wish to see in the world – for personal benefit as well as for our ancestors.

Something else Jonas Salk said was that “If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within fifty years all forms of life would flourish.” Whilst recent history might suggest he could be right, wouldn’t it be great to play a part in ensuring we never find out?


All content on this page is correct as of July 4, 2019.