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The movement for law firm human rights was born in 2011 with the dawning insight that, like any other business, a law firm has a responsibility to respect human rights under the U.N. Guiding Principles established by John Ruggie. The cause gathered momentum with an early 2012 endorsement by the American Bar Association. Eighteen months later, on July 24, the London nonprofit A4ID has published its long-awaited primer on how to handle your evil clients, entitled "The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: A guide for the legal profession."

This is notably not a guide on when to drop a client, which will be called for "only in extremely exceptional circumstances." Withdrawal would not only alienate senior partners, but would forfeit the law firm's influence with the client — and the Ruggie framework is all about influencing companies. "In general, the Guiding Principles imply working with clients to reduce human rights risks," A4ID maintains, by using the law firm's "leverage."

The report's charm lies in its sticky real-world examples. Law firms should evaluate the implications when they are asked to license cyber-software in a repressive Arab nation, set up a toy factory in China, arrange security for an Algerian oil refinery, or buy an oil producer in South Sudan. A4ID tries not to offer prescriptions, and it is too cautious to propose, as has Ruggie himself, that litigators should sometimes pull their punches. But it lays out vivid corporate scenarios, and, despite itself, lets a few prescriptions slip.

A4ID describes three levels of law firm entanglement with human rights abuses. At one end of the spectrum, a law firm may do innocuous work for a controversial client. For instance, a firm may be asked to write the lease of a highly-localized London back-office operation for a logistics multinational that is notorious for dumping chemicals in another part of the world. There are no Ruggie obligations here, but the law firm may wish to consider the hit to its reputation. Are some clients too toxic to touch?

At the next level of concern, a law firm's services are "directly linked" to a human rights violation by the client. Let's say a firm routinely negotiates the leases for a developer, and it comes to light that the developer discriminates against female tenants. The firm has a Ruggie responsibility to tell its client to cut it out.

At the other extreme, the law firm may itself "contribute" to a human rights offense. Suppose a firm drafts a contract with an Asian coal miner requiring only that national labor laws be obeyed, even though national laws violate international conventions by allowing teenagers to work. Or suppose a firm negotiates a new retail contract that will predictably force a manufacturer to violate labor laws by pushing its Bangladeshi textile factories past their capacity. The U.N. says that lawyers must avoid contributing to these violations. That means pressuring clients — in the first case not to hire teenagers, and in the second case to expand manufacturing capacity.

A4ID doesn't pretend to have all the answers. In the words of chief executive Yasmin Batliwala, it aims mainly to foster the "debate about how law firms balance their responsibility to respect human rights with their professional duties."

The Global Lawyer will keep a careful count of which law firms are brave enough to join the conversation.

Of related interest:

A Sarbanes-Oxley for Human Rights?

Analysis: The Lipton-Millstein Debate on U.N. Human Rights

The Global Lawyer: Marty Likes It

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