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How law firms can engage with clients on ESG

Interview Discussion

When we talk to law firms and their clients about ESG, it sometimes feels like they are poles apart in their eagerness to engage with one another on the subject.

On one side, we have the in-house legal buyers.

Our new research with over 100 GC-level leaders across the UK showed that 96% of in-house leaders believe organisations need to prioritise ESG and invest in the transition to becoming more sustainable.

96% believe organisations need to prioritise ESG

That is virtually all UK in-house leaders telling us that ESG is personally important to them.

It’s a hugely encouraging stat which supports our own mission of helping the legal industry make greater impact.  

But, it also reveals where law firms must take more action. We know from consultations with the in-house community that it is very rare for law firms to proactively go to clients to discuss ESG, despite this being so personally important to them as stakeholders.

Speaking of the law firm side – here, we often perceive a shyness that stops firms from really engaging with clients on the topic of ESG.

We know from our own research that every firm is on its own unique ESG journey, with some further along the road than others. Each firm may also have its own focus, with some placing more emphasis on governance structures and others on environmental sustainability and performance.

Law firms often share with us the barriers they face in being more vocal about ESG with their clients (and in the wider market in general).

Some of the recurring themes in our conversations with law firms are:

  • ESG is still relatively ‘new’ to the firm
  • ESG strategies are in development stage
  • ESG is unfamiliar territory, particularly to Partners
  • ESG is a reputational risk; law firms may worry that by sharing examples of leadership on ESG, they could open themselves up to criticism

We recognise all of these as very real concerns that do need to be carefully managed in order for law firms to show that their approach to ESG is genuine, authentic and having meaningful impact.

But, the unavoidable truth remains: ESG really matters to clients.

In such a competitive market, the firms which closely align themselves to their clients’ main priorities and concerns secure their status as trusted relationship partners. Engaging with clients on the subject of ESG is going to be a very important part of this equation.

Sustainable success

What law firms can do to engage with clients on ESG

In our survey of law firm leaders, we also asked how they felt law firms can better align to their needs as a client.

Building trust between law firms and clients was one of the main themes repeated across their responses.

Clients talked about having openness and honesty within their law firm relationships; in practical terms, they suggested this should involve greater effort to share and communicate both ways.

So, how can law firms start to increase the level of communication and trust with clients around ESG?

Stakeholder feedback is one of the most impactful ways to start conversations.  

From our decades of experience, we are familiar with all of the blockers that prevent law firms from having deeper and regular feedback conversations with clients. But, simply by inviting clients to participate in a conversation of this nature, a law firm demonstrates that they are taking action on ESG.

It also shows that they are serious about bringing the stakeholder voice to the fore in shaping their ESG strategy.   

And with so few firms making proactive contact with their clients on ESG, doing so becomes a significant differentiator.

If you are considering taking the leap and beginning to collect client stakeholder feedback (whether big or small scale), our research with in-house clients suggests the following areas are particularly worthwhile topics to explore:

  • What in particular is important for clients from an ESG perspective
  • What action do clients want to see from their law firm partners on ESG
  • Which examples of ESG leadership resonate with clients
  • Where clients are focusing ESG efforts within their own company
  • Where a law firm can support a client organisation on its ESG journey (for example, skills development and training)

Having these conversations one-on-one can also help firms educate their partners on the language clients use to talk about ESG (to ensure they can understand and mirror this). It will also reveal the depth of each individual client’s passion for ESG and help partners understand where they need to develop their knowledge to stay current with clients’ thinking.

Stakeholder feedback, of course, is not just about clients – a fully rounded stakeholder feedback programme would include the voice of its own people (through consultations and surveys across the population of the firm).

Firms should also be extending the invitation to contribute to ESG strategy to their suppliers, referrers and local communities through similar initiatives.

Stakeholder map


As much as it can be difficult to mobilise a law firm on ESG-focused client engagement, all the signs from our research with clients show it is the right thing to do. It is clearly one of the main things that will resonate with clients and help a firm and client organisation to achieve greater impact together. 

If you’d like to access our in-house community research or ask any more questions about stakeholder feedback, we would love for you to get in touch.

About the author

Hayley Fothergill

Hayley leads on research design, execution and delivery. A former member of the Acritas and Thomson Reuters team, Hayley has almost a decades-worth of research experience and has led a variety of thought-leadership projects within the legal sector. These have covered topics such as DEI, talent and the future of the legal industry itself. Hayley's specialism is in qualitative research, conducting in-depth interviews and coaching teams to improve their own stakeholder feedback programmes.