How playing video games inspired my journey into Intellectual Property law

Dr Yin Harn Lee is a senior lecturer in law at Bristol and her area of expertise is in intellectual property law. In this blog, Yin Harn discusses how she embarked on a love for IP law through a non-conventional route, and how this could be an interesting area for you to explore in your career.

How did you end up specialising in copyright law and in particular, in relation to video games?

Well, this is because I had very long summer holidays, and during the holidays I was playing video games and was interested in modifying them, so making them do something a bit different from how they were originally designed. That led me to a lot of legal questions, such as is any of this allowed? And if it’s not allowed, should it be allowed? And what does this actually mean in terms of people’s ability to work creatively with existing video games?

“So, when parents say playing video games will never get you anywhere, you can tell them that’s not exactly true.”

Why did you choose to come to Bristol to teach?

I came to Bristol because it’s very well known as a research-intensive institution that values research alongside excellent teaching. There was a key group of colleagues that were interested in information technology law and intellectual property law, and we all do different things. But things are related enough that we can talk to each other and really bounce and spark interesting ideas off each other. That was what attracted me to Bristol intellectually, and in terms of career development.

How have you developed your research since coming to Bristol?

In terms of further research, I have previously looked at copyright on video game modifications. I’m now working on another project also about video games, but this is about the cultural preservation of video games. What we want to do is look at questions around how would a museum, for example, preserve a video game for future generations? What does it mean to preserve a video game? Are we only dealing with the code, or do we want, for instance, to also preserve some sense of how it was received by the public and how people engage with it? This raises a lot of complex, but also really interesting legal and even social questions. On that project, we have got the support of the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, which is excellent, and we look forward to working closely with them.

What advice would you give a student looking to forge a career in intellectual property law? 

If a student wishes to forge a career in either intellectual property law or perhaps information technology law, I would advise having a really good grounding in the foundations of legal knowledge, because that student will need to be able to engage with contract law, standard property law and even trust law – so all areas of basic legal knowledge. And then to build up that knowledge and become more specialised by studying intellectual property law and information technology law, obviously.

Another area of importance is to develop a strong sense of commercial awareness.

“How will intellectual property and information technology law affect commercial dealings, the overall business environment and perhaps even the overall social environment?”

And then be able to reflect critically on how these would translate into issues that need to be addressed by the law, how these would translate into challenges that people will need lawyers to overcome. That is all really important, and students should develop that by wider reading on all of these issues, following for instance technology blogs, intellectual property scholars on social media and so on. There are so many of us. And importantly, I think what would be helpful for students at more advanced levels of study is to try and get a vacation scheme or mini pupillage in a solicitor’s firm or barrister’s chambers that specialises in this area so that you can really see the law in action.

Your research spans many areas, how interdisciplinary in nature is IP law?

My own work is inevitably becoming more and more interdisciplinary in nature because we have to engage not only with computer scientists when we’re dealing with computer programmes and digital art, but also with the art world when talking about more conventional forms of art. We need to talk to musical composers and understand how they see the process of composition. We need to engage in the kind of literary and film world production practices around TV and film to understand how intellectual property law fits in there.

So, in that sense, my work is inevitably interdisciplinary.


What do you see as the future for IP law in relation to video games? 

In terms of how I see my own research on copyright and video games and indeed intellectual property and video games evolving, I think it’s only going to become an area of greater and greater interest to people in the future. We’re already seeing that video games which were previously thought of as some sort of niche entertainment, taking a bigger and bigger market share in terms of the overall entertainment sector. The routine use of them outstrips film and television on a regular basis.

People are beginning to see the kind of social and cultural influences that video games have, especially over the last year with the pandemic, when people have been at home. One of the main ways of entertaining oneself and also communicating with others is through video games and especially the large online video games like Minecraft and Fortnite. I think people are becoming more and more aware of these issues, and therefore there will be greater interest in this field in future years.

Do you still play video games – and are you rare as an academic working in this field?

Well, this is a very sad question, because since I started researching video games, I have not had time to play any. But in terms of what I used to like to play, (which was so long ago, that it is now fashionable) are classic isometric role playing games like Baldar’s Gate, which I used to mod by BioWare, including Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

Whether I’m rare in being a lawyer who mods or used to modify video games, I would like to think not, because when I was more active in the video game modification scene than I am currently now, I met all sorts of people from all walks of life. Granted, they were the usual suspects, like computer scientists – people who were themselves professional video game developers. But you also got surprising people like a schoolteacher from Portsmouth that I worked with. You can get all kinds of unexpected people in that scene. While I’m currently the only lawyer I know who does this, or used to do it for fun, I’m sure there are more of them out there, I just need to hunt them down – in a nice way.

Have you seen an increase in students with computer science degrees moving into law/IP? 

If you study law and then go on to do something else such as computer science, I do see that becoming more popular, although I’m more familiar with it the other way around – a computer science student, then deciding to study law. I think there are some natural connections in that sense because both of these areas depend on a certain kind of logic. Computer science has a certain logic to it. Law has a certain logic to it. And while the logics are not identical, you do get a sense that you’re working up something from first principles.

“If you are a student who has a strong interest in intellectual property law, I think going into one of the related fields like computer science is a very natural career path.”

I do think more students will be undertaking this kind of flexible way of studying in the future.

Further information

Find out more about studying intellectual property law at the University of Bristol, by exploring our undergraduate and postgraduate courses that allow you to tailor your degree with our diverse range of optional units.

Why you should apply for a Think Big about Global Justice Scholarship

Recent law graduate and recipient of a Think Big about Global Justice Scholarship, Kudzi Manase, explains how she came to study law in the first place and what inspired her to apply for the scholarship to kickstart her career.

Kudzi Manase

Why Bristol?

I was born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, where I completed my IGCSE’s and A-levels in Maths, English Literature and Biology. I particularly enjoyed the last two because of how much reading was involved and was inspired to study law as a result. I chose Bristol for a number of reasons, one of which was the city’s reputation as a lively and welcoming place. More importantly, I was looking for a university that would provide me with the skills and experiences that would allow me to complete my studies as a highly employable graduate. Bristol was, and still is, ranked very highly for employability.

Figuring out my path

Before studying at University, I felt I wasn’t provided with as much careers guidance as I would have liked. Students were expected to follow very traditional career paths, but I wanted to explore things that were a bit more creative. As there wasn’t much guidance for this, I created a website where I interviewed successful Zimbabwean women based across the world in a wide range of professions. I asked them about their roles and to explain what their processes were, why they chose their specific paths and what students who wanted to go into something similar would need to do to get there.

Making my application

When I applied to Bristol, I also applied for the Think Big about Global Justice Scholarship. The scholarship is specific to University of Bristol applicants and involved writing a bit about myself, what I wanted to do once I graduated and why I chose Bristol. I also had to outline something that I had done within my community that I felt was of importance and helped as many people as possible – see above! Thankfully I was successful in gaining the scholarship which was helpful during my studies.

“When I found out that I was successful in my application, I was very excited as I’d always known Bristol was my first choice. Receiving that email only cemented my decision to study there.”

I felt that I had worked very hard in my academics and various projects, so it was something that made me feel good about all the work that I had put in up to that point.

What it was really like

One of the ways that the scholarship did push me was the requirement to maintain a certain grade level throughout my degree. I like to think that I am self-motivated, but that was definitely a nice, additional motivator! I always felt that there was support whenever I needed it at a number of different levels. At the closest level, every student is given a personal tutor – that’s someone that you can talk to about your academics and extracurricular activities whenever you need to. Just knowing that person was there whenever I needed them was amazing and a very big help! Beyond that, thinking about the law school more broadly, I always felt that whenever I had a query or an issue and reached out to someone, it was dealt with quickly and well.

There was a very diverse range of units offered by the Law School. From my own perspective, I always gravitated towards units that would allow me to go into a more corporate environment. Some of the units I took, as a result, were things like commercial, banking and corporate law to name a few. That said, for students who aren’t interested in that sort of thing, there certainly are many other units available, such as Human Rights Law, Medical Law and Land Law to name a few.

Tailoring my degree and specialising

In my final year, I decided to study IT law. There were a number of reasons for this, the first of which was the novelty. A lot of my units were very much tailored towards going into either banking or corporate law, but IT Law was more diverse and covered a lot of different areas. We studied how IT features in the work that the police do, in medicine and social media, to name a few. The other reason I chose the unit was because of how inescapable information technology has become. It made sense to be able to understand how the law in this space was evolving as a result and the impact it could have on myself and others as consumers.

“My experience at the University of Bristol was amazing. Being able to learn alongside students who are very ambitious and who expect great things in their future really does encourage you to continue working hard. Bristol provided me with an environment where I felt encouraged and able to achieve my ambitions.”

My experiences at the university of Bristol have been incredibly helpful in helping me settle into my role as a graduate analyst and are sure to continue being useful as I progress in my career.

Find out more

Applications for the Think Big about Global Justice Scholarships are now open. The first deadline for applications is 28 March 2022. Find out more about the scholarship on the Law School Funding webpage.

Why I’m passionate about supporting volunteer students delivering justice

Sumayyah Malna is a lecturer in law and solicitor at the University of Bristol Law Clinic. She is also the Law School Director of Employability and co-chair of the Staff BAME Committee. In this blog, created from the transcript of a recent filming session, Sumayyah provides some background on why she decided to choose a career in law, the benefits of pro bono legal work and how this can benefit students learning and the wider community. 

Sumayyah Malna, Lecturer in Law and Law Clinic Solicitor

Why did you choose to pursue a legal career? 

I wanted to go into law to do medical law, because that was specifically what I was interested in. I didn’t want to do corporate/commercial stuff – I was very set on doing the medical side of things. So my experience throughout my training contract and in practice put me in good stead to then move over to the University of Bristol Law Clinic. I have worked with people who have suddenly had their lives upended and they have these huge legal problems, but they don’t have the money and the resources that other companies and organisations have – and public funding isn’t always available.  

What type of legal work have you worked on in the past? 

I’ve worked on the opposite side, working for the NHS Trust in Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), who ran those cases as well – so I’ve seen first-hand that power imbalance. Moving across to the University and working at the Law Clinic, I really wanted to help address that balance by taking on some of the work that I used to do when I was working for NHS Trust and CCGs, by empowering those members of our community with the help of the students and their brilliant work, so that they’re in a better position when they are addressing these legal proceedings. 

I trained at a firm called Irwin Mitchell, where I practiced clinical negligence law. I also worked in public law and human rights, assisting with legal aid claims against state bodies like NHS trusts against CCGs as well. I then qualified and moved over to a firm called Bevan Brittan, where the majority of my caseload was inquest work and court of protection work. This involved advising NHS trust and CCGs in relation to their patients who didn’t have mental capacity to make decisions – and going to court on behalf of our clients, putting forward cases in front of the judge. 

How has this experience shaped your work at the Law Clinic? 

Having worked on both sides of the table, I feel like I’ve got a unique perspective in terms of insight into the power imbalance that appears in courtrooms or among negotiations as well. I’m keen to equip our students with an understanding of the larger context in which the law exists. Looking at power imbalances, looking at our clients in context is people who don’t just exist in a vacuum but exist as a result of their experiences. And what that means for the choices that they’ve made that led them here, but also looking at ourselves as lawyers and the choices that we make and how that impacts the case as a whole. 

What provision is there for clinical legal education in the curriculum? 

I teach on clinical legal studies, which is a third-year optional unit. The unit involves students being part of our Law Clinic and running cases on behalf of our local community, but also taking that one step further and looking at the academic side of clinical legal work. So, looking at our clients in context, what do their experiences mean? How does that shape what the decisions that we make as lawyers? What regulations are in place and why are they in place? What is our justice system all about? Is it an effective justice system? What can we do to make change? What power do our students have in providing pro bono work and further on in their careers in terms of effecting real change?

“One of my favourite things about my job is talking to students who until they start working at the clinic, just presume that the only routes into law are the corporate commercial routes. I just love helping them to see a whole different world in terms of the social justice and human rights work that can be done and showing them that there is real value in these roots as well.”

What can students gain from being part of the Law Clinic? 

Being a part of the Law Clinic is such a wonderful opportunity for our students. Students feel really inspired to actually go into law that has a social justice element to it, so they’ve seen that there’s a different side to law. That’s not just the corporate and commercial side to it in terms of working for big, faceless corporations, but that there’s real value in and working for and acting for individuals who really do value the support that we’re able to give. Whether that’s going to be legal aid work or pro bono work, working for law centres and the like.

It gives them the responsibility that they’re not going to get anywhere else at this stage of their career, directly interviewing their clients and asking questions of their client. The direct contact with the client is quite unusual to get at this stage of their career. 

We have students who have come up against huge law firms and have been to court, have advocated on behalf of their clients. They’ve learned skills in terms of negotiation and drafting documents for particular parties that really are invaluable skills that will serve students well, whether they decide to go into law, or if they decide to do something else entirely. 

Find out more

Don’t forget to read the full Volunteering Week blog series to find out more about the options for gaining real-life experiences of law, in social justice and beyond, whilst studying at the Law School. Find out more about our Law Clinic work and careers opportunities on our webpages.


How volunteering and mentoring has given me focus for my future

Recent MA in Law graduate, Tanzeem Basha spoke to us recently about her experience of choosing to study law, how she found studying in Bristol and the opportunities to gain real-life experiences of law, particularly in the area of social justice. 

Tanzeem Basha graduation

Why did you choose Bristol to study the MA in Law course 

I wanted to study in a world-class university and Bristol was one of the top 10 universities in the UK – that’s why I chose Bristol. I also wanted to study in a place that had it’s roots in law and I couldn’t find a place better than Bristol.  

I didn’t want to do a one-year GDL and I was looking at courses that could offer a well-rounded structure to give me the core legal skills that I required to become a successful lawyer in the future. That’s when I came across the MA in Bristol and Bristol is one of the very few universities that offer this course..  

How did the optional units help shape your degree?  

There are a lot of options available in the MA course. I was quite confused as to what I wanted to choose because I wanted to study everything, but I chose corporate governance in the US and UK. I think that is really helpful for me and for my career because I want to become a commercial lawyer and in a city law firm. They expect you to know some corporate law and I think Bristol has given me that.  

You were able to work in the Freedom Law Clinic during your second year – how did you find this opportunity? 

In the Freedom Law Clinic, we got to advise people who were convicted of serious criminal offences. My client was convicted of murder and we had to find new grounds of appeal, analyse new evidence and make his case stronger when applying to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. That was a really good opportunity for me because I got to do real work and I got hands-on legal experience. 


What mentoring schemes were you involved in and how did they help your career planning?

I participated in the Law School Professional Mentoring scheme in my second year. I had a mentor from a city law firm, in a corporate team, which is the direction I wanted to go into. Over seven months we had one-to-one meetings and he told me where I had to improve, how I had to navigate my career, how to successfully get into a city law firm be it training contract applications or even the slightest doubts that I had he made sure that I understood what I was getting into. Personally, I also got to know what kind of work law firms do, what kind of cases they take up and how I would fit in this whole area – that was really good.

How has studying here shaped your future ambition/what you want to do?

Studying at Bristol has navigated me in the right direction. I knew I wanted to do law but then I was confused – even though I wanted to do commercial law, there’s so many aspects of commercial law that you’d want to go into – and Bristol led me in the right direction by giving me opportunities for example the mentoring scheme taught me what I actually want to do in my future.  

What would you say to someone considering studying law here?

As an international student, I think Law as a subject can be really intimidating and then you’re moving countries, the education system is completely different but I think there’s a lot of support available be it from the academic staff or the Law School Careers Service. There’s always support and I think you should make the most of your time in Bristol – there’s no better place to study law. 

Find out more

Don’t forget to read the full Volunteering Week blog series to find out more about the options for gaining real-life experiences of law, in social justice and beyond, whilst studying at the Law School. Find out more about our Law Clinic work and careers opportunities on our webpages.

My experience as a Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholar and how it has helped shape my future

The University of Bristol supports eligible first year law students to apply for the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme. Launched in 2013, the scheme seeks to address the disproportionate under-representation of black and black mixed-race men from less socially mobile backgrounds in large commercial law firms, and in recent years other ‘City’ careers too. Each year students will work closely with lawyers and other professionals within Freshfields, and at other City organisations.

This year three University of Bristol law students were amongst only 13 successful applicants – a fantastic achievement. They follow in the footsteps of two previous University of Bristol law students who also won scholarships and whose feedback on the scheme, and the support offered, was exceptional. We caught up with Jeante Nero who was one of the three Bristol law students to join the scheme in 2021, as he tells us his thoughts on the scheme and why you should apply.

Jeante Nero

Why did you decide to apply for the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship?

“I was contacted by the Law School’s Career adviser Jo Cooksley who nominated me for the opportunity. Upon attending the online welcome event I emailed a previous 2020 scholar, Oli, and asked a few additional questions about it. I applied because I thought it was a fantastic opportunity, and rightly so, to gain insight into the commercial world. I am so much more aware than I ever would’ve been with how things work.”

When you were selected for the scholarship, how did this make you feel?

“I honestly didn’t think I’d be offered a scholarship after the assessment days. I felt like there were so many great applicants so when I found out I’d been awarded one I was quite shocked but my excitement for the programme overcame most of the imposter syndrome.”

What is offered on the scholarship and what do you feel you have gained from the opportunity?

“You get invaluable insight into the commercial world, and incredible mentorship from people at the top of their field. There are a number of City and legal careers we explore on the programme: the focus is a primarily commercial one, but that’s not to say you cannot receive guidance on other areas. Mentors are great at helping you to explore fields you’re interested in. This process has helped me discover that my true passion resides in human rights and civil law, possibly as a barrister. The skills sessions included in the development programme will help me succeed in the competitive area that I plan to move in to. Sessions so far have included ‘ESG’ (environmental, social, governance), tech and innovation, writing skills, personal and professional branding, and building resilience. The unique thing about the programme is the networks it seeks to build, including among scholars and candidates. I don’t know of another programme that brings together black men with the potential to succeed.”

What advice would you give to someone thinking of applying?

“Just do it (not to sound cliché). You have nothing to lose by applying and the assessment centre is great practice for the future. You don’t have to be set on entering the commercial world. This programme can help with a wide range of careers. Don’t be scared to apply or doubt your capabilities. The criteria can seem daunting, but Freshfields considers potential in a number of ways, and far too often we underestimate our own capabilities. There’s even a great offering for those who don’t win a scholarship.”

How can I find out more about the scheme and how to apply?

You can find out more about this fantastic scheme via this link. If you are studying law at the University of Bristol and think that you might be eligible for the scheme, you can contact Jo Cooksley ( to find out more.

Human Rights Day: How my UN work influences my teaching and helped shape careers

In this Human Rights Day blog we spoke to Professor Sir Malcolm Evans about how his teaching has been influenced by over 10 years of leading the United Nations’ efforts to prevent torture around the world, how leaving your career planning a little to chance is not always a bad thing – and how choosing the LLM in Human Rights can open up a diverse array of career paths.

Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law

When I started teaching law, human rights really wasn’t something that was very much studied or very much taught. So when I began teaching here at the University of Bristol in the early 1990s, we established an LLM in International Law.

I thought it would be good to offer a unit in international human rights law, which was rather rash of me, quite frankly, as I had never studied international human rights at that point but for one week on my undergraduate course a couple of years earlier. The rest, they say, is history.

In order to teach others well, I got involved in the field of torture prevention. A colleague, who was a criminologist, had just started advising a newly established international body called the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which was about to start its work, going around, visiting prisons and discovering what protections there were for those who were in prison and other places of detention from ill treatment. We began talking about it. And then we began writing about it and researching about it. And one thing led to another.

My role in the UN really grew out of the work I was doing here as an academic over the course of time. We looked at the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and its work, and at that time moves were afoot within the United Nations to establish a similar international instrument, creating a similar body at the global level. So because of what we knew about the way this worked in Europe, we started talking to the people involved in this and became quite heavily involved in lobbying for the instrument and following the negotiation process until the international instrument was finally adopted in the middle of the 2000s.

I was inevitably drawn closer and closer to it in practice. And then, in 2009, I was offered the opportunity of standing for election to the Subcommittee itself. And so, for me, it’s been a fascinating journey because I started off looking at this area of torture prevention very much as an academic, moving on to viewing it very much as an advocate and then, finally, having to run the system. That’s quite a transition.

I’ve always been most interested in the way that one’s knowledge as a lawyer can be converted over into practical policy and have an impact through policy formation and development. So trying to influence public policy around international legal issues and human rights issues was the way to go. The idea of taking what we have learned through academic study and engagement and making that into practical policies that can be then implemented – completing the circle, studying and reflecting academically on the way human rights are implemented in practice.

I don’t know any more where the influence of my work within the UN in my teaching begins and ends, it has all become almost symbiotic. The one has over the years become the other. I teach what I do within what I have done within the UN. I seek to implement that which I’ve learned through my academic study, which is fantastic. From a personal point of view, rarely do you have that opportunity to be able to study as an academic to reflect with others on what you think should be done and then be in the position to try to really bring it about in the world, within the UN, within the UN Human Rights Treaty body system.

But it also means that back in teaching, what do I teach? I teach my experience within the UN. One becomes the other and students can draw on the practical experience of so many people that I have been working very closely with over so many years within the Human Rights Implementation Centre and international organisations within the development of human rights practice and policy – so many different levels. The insights that that can bring to the teaching is frankly a huge asset and very difficult to replicate elsewhere.

It really does enhance the prospects of students who want to go into practical work around human rights issues. One of the advantages our LLM in Human Rights Law is that it can open up a very broad range of career options. For many who’ve done the LLM, they may want to go into professional practice in the commercial or other law areas, and the human rights work they’ve done is something that they will carry with them. Increasingly, major commercial practices encourage those working for them to take part in pro bono work, and for many, that does take the form of human rights work. So having the LLM in Human Rights Law is a huge asset.

The LLM in Human Rights Law opens up a huge array of possibilities, not just in professional practice itself, but also in policy and other areas as well. Some of the students that we’ve had, have gone on to become legal academics in the area of human rights law themselves. Others have gone on to work within the United Nations, in the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, working alongside the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in Africa, in a multiplicity of settings within International organisations, for the International Committee of the Red Cross and so on.

What’s next for me. I’ve said on many occasions, I’m not a great advocate for career planning. Things come along and you take them. Your options present themselves. Having just finished ten years as chair of the United Nations Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture, at the moment I’m writing a book on it, but I’m still heavily involved in processes and thinking around the reform of the entire system of UN Human Rights Treaty Protection, and that will continue into the future. And I know that there are a variety of other UN opportunities and positions that may be coming up that I may be contemplating putting my name forward for in the future. But who knows? It’s good to take new challenges, but when one’s been working for as long as I have in the field, such as torture prevention, you can never really give it up.

It may sound trite, but genuinely it is seeing what so many of your students then go on to do – when you see what they say, read what they write, hear about what they may do in the organisations in which they work. And you think, I know why they think that because you remember talking to them about it. It is that sense that you have passed on something of what you have learned and you have thought, to others and see it influencing the way that they are going about their work and how they are influencing things around them that, to me, provides me with the greatest satisfaction.


COP26: Moving Money, Banks and Lawsuits

In our final conversation with CEO of ClientEarth, James Thornton, the role environmental NGOs play in speeding up actions and moving money in the right direction is explored – with examples of how being unafraid to take on the big guns could reap the desired rewards.

David: Law can unquestionably play an important role in environmental activism. What, in your view, is the role of environmental NGOs today?

Banks and money

James: The role of environmental NGOs is very important. They are able to speed up society’s understanding of these problems and then speed up the action of politicians, corporations in dealing with them.

Even though people are now pretty well on track to understand that there are problems, the movement that we’re making towards solving them is just too slow. Some will take action in the form of demonstrations. Some, like me, will take action in the form of bringing lawsuits.

David: There’s such pragmatism to the approach with ClientEarth, like constantly trying to work out what way you can get to this ideal end point. But, it seems that you have to keep the horizons so broad because a one-channel approach isn’t going to necessarily get you there.

James: If you’re going to save the environment, you have to move the money in the right direction. So you have to move trillions of dollars away from investment in fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas and all of that. You have to move all that money to renewable energy, for example. So, how do you do that?

Environmental law on its own isn’t enough because it regulates bad behaviour, but it doesn’t go to the heart of the money – and the decisions about where money go and the responsibilities of how to spend money in the right way.

So you need to think, how do you look at securities law as if it were environmental law? How do you look at banking as if it were environmental law? And we’ve been doing very cool things. We just wrote a letter to 17 of the world’s biggest banks, because they want to give a lot of money to Shell to develop new oil and gas field.

We wrote to the banks saying, look, you are going to be encouraging the development of the oil and gas field in such a way that it will make it harder to meet the Paris Agreement. You will, we think, be violating your fiduciary duty to your shareholders. You may be liable to lawsuits from your shareholders for this behaviour. So withdraw from this deal now.

Now that was very public and I made it very simple, but it’s a very long legal letter. If they’re smart, they’ll decide ‘well, we’re not going to fund this’. If they don’t, there is the potential then for litigation against them to stop the funding. Now, six years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that we could do that.

But now, we look at all of these other specialities, areas of law that can be used just as much for the environment as environmental law itself. I love the synergies that you get when you bring all these areas of law. It’s very dynamic.

David: That type of process of writing a letter to send to the bank that sounds like quite fun to me.

Well, it is – you’re right. Law can seem very dry and on its own – it is dry. But what I can do with it is very exciting. Just so powerful. I’ll give you another example, since we’re talking about banks.

So, you know we were saying, how do you move the money in the right direction? Well, the EU has something called the Green Deal. Everything we do as the EU must look at the environment and give an environmental benefit. It’s a beautiful concept – and then the question, as always, is what does it mean in the real world? So a nice idea, but does it actually mean anything?

Then the EU decided it was going to do what’s called quantitative easing, where they were going to put a lot of money in to help the economy post-COVID – and a lot of money, €750 billion.

A good idea from an economic point of view; to help the economy after COVID-19, so we said, is it actually going to meet the terms of the Green Deal? With all that money, will it help Europe move towards being greener?

We looked at analysis from the London School of Economics and the European Central Bank, which was simply going to buy bonds, which is how you do this, according to a standard formula.

The London School of Economics Grantham Institute looked at that and said, well actually that standard formula would mean that over 60% of this money went to fossil fuel in one way or another – to oil companies, or to other possibly related entities – so it’s not green at all.

And so €750 billion, you put towards the green economy. But within that €750 billion, more than 60% is put towards the fossil fuel economy and you’re moving backwards. So we said, what can we do about that? We said, we think this is illegal under the Green Deal and under the Treaty of Europe. We’ve looked at how the bonds are actually bought and then the bonds would be bought by six central banks.

James Thonton and David McKeown

So we sued the central Bank of Belgium and said this bond purchase that you’re about to do violates the Green Deal and violates the Treaty of Europe. You’re an entity of the government and you’re required to look at the environmental impact of this. You just can’t do it.

It also kind of met a lifetime goal of mine, of suing a central bank! So we’ll see where we go.  But if we go to the European court and win, then what will happen is cool.

One of the interesting things about using law the way we do is it’s like playing 60 chess games, looking ahead and playing this very good game. Because what we’re trying to do is ask, how do you influence that quantitative easing decision?

The woman who runs the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, wants to do the right thing. She actually wanted that bond purchase to foster the Green Deal, but the bank governors said,

“No, we have a very narrow mandate. We can’t look at the real-world impact of our decision, only the fiscal impacts, the financial impact.” Which is just madness.

We said sorry, no, took them to court. And if we win in the European court, then Christine Lagarde will get the space to do what she wanted to do, but didn’t have the power to do.

So again, if you go into the system and look at it holistically, how can you move that money to get a good green result? You put all these pieces together and then find a lever, which just happened to be banking law.

Let’s see if we win. But win or lose it’s a very good shot.

Find out more about our ClientEarth Conversation Series online where you can also book your place on the Environment and Energy Law Society roundtable to discuss the issues raised in the series with fellow staff and students.

COP26: Biodiversity, Big Cycles and Human Rights

In the third interview in our COP26 Conversation Series postgraduate research student David McKeown, talks to CEO of ClientEarth and honorary professor James Thornton about biodiversity – critters, compost and ‘wholism’ – exploring how human rights law can protect those best positioned to be the stewards of nature.

biodiversity and human rights

David: In the UK ClientEarth is very known for its work with climate action, but alongside this, your work is also concerned with protecting forests and defending habitats.

What do you perceive as the main threats for biodiversity?

One is climate change. If you’re going to protect biodiversity, you have to stop climate change. There are a lot of good reasons to stop climate change, and that’s one of them, if you want to protect life and the diversity of life. Another is the human use of land. Agriculture is one of the largest impacts, in Europe, for example, it’s the number one thing that is having an impact on biodiversity and creating biodiversity loss.

The conversion of land and then the use of pesticides and herbicides – that’s an enormous global problem. Agriculture, and then deforestation. Deforestation sometimes involves agriculture – in Brazil, for example, you have large areas of forest and the drier forests the cerada, but also the wetter forests, that have been and are being cut down in order to grow soybeans.

We raise enormous numbers of animals in terrible conditions, and we cut down the rainforest to grow soy beans to feed them. And so the whole agricultural industry is one of the main contributors. And in the end, also climate change itself.

“If you want to protect diversity, one of the things you need to do is to address the agriculture system that we have and try and make it a much more sustainable system.”

It’s something that you can immediately start working on. And of course, we work on.

David: That description of these different factors really demonstrates the relationality of climate issues and environmental issues in general. I wonder for you, has it always been a holistic approach or was there one cause that brought you into climate activism?

Did you always have this sense that there was a holistic nature to this problem?

The nature of nature is holistic, completely holistic, and like almost every environmentalist I’ve ever met. What happened to me is I fell in love with nature as a kid. You know, as a kid, I spent as much time as I could out in nature and collecting spiders, looking at flowers, watching birds or anything I could do that would get me intimately involved with nature.

And then at university and law school it was beginning to become clear that the human impacts were growing to the point that they were dangerous. I had originally thought I was going to be a scientist because I loved nature.

“Becoming a lawyer became a way to learn tools that could be used to save nature rather than studying it and see it go. I would get these tools and try and protect it.”

So then as soon as you go into it, you see the connections between this part and that part between all of it.

David: It’s an encouraging time in many ways because I feel like people are talking, certainly post COVID-19, a lot more about the environment in a way that maybe prior to COVID-19, I sense wasn’t as popular. Particularly  with lockdowns, people were getting back into nature and rediscovering it.

James: Then the question is, how do you protect? Nature based, area based protection has to look at not only the science of what is important to protect in the area, but also the human communities who live there, and particularly in areas that are relatively wild. It would be the forest dependent communities and other people that are farmers and so on, who are the ones who can become the custodians of this – and then understanding their rights and protecting their rights becomes enormously important.

“One of the things that should come out of protecting nature is also protecting indigenous people. And this would be an immense boon for human rights as well as nature.”

David: Something that’s not so explicitly mentioned within the Convention on Biological Diversity is human rights, but within the Special Rapporteur of Human Rights within these recent reports,  there has been mention of this connection between human rights and the Convention on Biological Diversity. You’re seeing a lot of signpost towards rights, rights based discourse. That would be an incredible step if we could see a greater connection between human rights mechanisms and protections and also the Convention on Biological Diversity.

And I suppose that links back as well to what we were discussing earlier with the idea of holism and interconnection between nature and humans. Like this idea when you were mentioning earlier the critters, I was thinking of Donna Haraway’s “We’re all compost.”

James Thornton and David McKeown

“This really captures the idea quite nicely because everything from the critters that seem so insignificant to some people, right the way up to much larger aspects of nature are really all quite interrelated.”

And the rights that we might think about, you know, human rights only freedom of expression and this sort of thing are actually inherently interrelated to what we might see as something that we would use to conserve biodiversity.

James: Well, you’re absolutely right. One of the areas that we’ve been working on for almost 10 years is, if enforced, conservation in four countries in Africa. We’ve been working to protect and enhance the rights of the forest-dependent communities.

The current understanding by scientists, by the best conservationists, is that the way to protect nature is to protect the people who protect nature. And it’s obvious when you think about it, but that’s not the way conservation used to go. It used to be to protect nature from people.

“By protecting the people in situ who are the best place to steward the land and the various ecosystems, you have the best chance of protecting the ecosystems.”

So it’s really inseparable to the human rights from protecting nature. And what you need to do then is to become an expert.

“It is helpful being lawyers because you need to become an expert in what those very complicated rights are; some of them very ancient customs that were never written down for indigenous communities.”

And that’s overlaid with colonial law with more modern law. So there’s a new kind of archeology of rights in an area. And what will need to happen now for this area-based conservation that comes out of the Convention on Biological Diversity, is a lot of focus on clarifying those rights and making it clear that these people actually have rights there. And ideally, one of the things we’d like to see is a centralised system, annotating those rights so that they’re easier to protect. It’s a difficult thing because you’ve got such plural systems, even within a small geographical area.

David: And then also you’ve got these decolonial paradigms at play as well. It is very hard to unpack, but the complexity of it, once it’s embraced, can actually produce ways and pathways of dealing with this. For me, one of the most important ones is participatory rights. It’s so often overlooked, but they can be so fundamental in, especially types of governance, to try and set a framework in place where people can participate and see what can potentially flourish out of that.

James: And these big cycles that we’re talking about now really are the way to think.

“What’s encouraging is that I think a lot of people are beginning to see the big cycles and interconnection of all of these things which gives many people a moment of despair. But what it also means is if you go through that despair and realise that the actions you can take are improving actions, you also then feel self-empowered. So if everything is connected and I’m doing something that helps part of it, I’m doing something that also helps the whole thing.”


Find out more about our ClientEarth Conversation Series online where you can also book your place on the Environment and Energy Law Society roundtable to discuss the issues raised in the series with fellow staff and students.

COP26: A Crisis, Coal and Corporate Law

Contuining our COP26, ClientEarth Conversation Series, we heard again from postgraduate research student David McKeown talking to James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth and an Honorary Professor of Law – about the climate crisis, the impact of coal and how corporate law can and has influenced decision making in this area.

China and coal

David: This year has been and is going to be very important in terms of global meetings between certain multilateral legal agreements regarding the environment.

Firstly, what do you hope for and expect from the COP26?

James: What is more and more apparent to everybody is that the planet is in a crisis – a climate crisis is well described in the news most days as we see the fires and the floods and the droughts – and there’s also, less often in the news but equally important a biodiversity crisis or a nature crisis. We’re in the sixth grade extinction and we’re losing species very rapidly so the world needs to pay a lot of attention to these things.

“It may be the most important meeting that will happen for the planet in our lifetimes.”

In that the Paris agreement, which was concluded five years ago now was a global agreement where 197 countries, came together and agree that there was a climate crisis and agreed that a series of steps that they would take to meet it. Now, five years later, what this meeting is about is to try and take far further steps.

So the Paris agreement is a set of guidelines. People went back to their own countries, came up with their own plans. Those plans aren’t yet nearly enough to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, which is keeping climate within 1 degree, 1.5 degrees centigrade of where it was in pre-industrial times.

“So that 1.5 degree rise is already dangerous for civilisation. Unless much more is done, than has been done, unless much more is committed and then done, than has been committed and has been done, we go way beyond 1.5 degrees. If we do go way beyond 1.5 degrees, then the consequences are extremely severe for our society. And at a certain point, maybe 4 degrees or so, civilisation itself will begin to fray and potentially rupture.”

We can do very well in terms of meeting the Paris agreement, but to get back to your question, that takes a lot more commitment, and then following through on the commitments. The time to commit is in this meeting in COP26 meeting in Glasgow.

So what do I want from it? I want countries to agree to further cuts. In order to meet the 1.5 degree target, basically you have to have every country saying we’re going to reduce our emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and then all the way down to zero emissions by 2050.

That’s far from where the commitments are right now. And we need those we need those greater commitments.

David: I suppose in the context of something like COP26, this is where legal activism can really flourish in a sense, because the discussions that we’re having, sort of agreements that we’re trying to broker are ones that can be strengthened through a legal dynamic.

James Thornton and David McKeown

Going into Glasgow, is there any one thing in particular that you’re looking out for, or is it more across the spectrum?

Going into Glasgow what you really want to see is those countries really commit to reducing their emissions, much more than they have now. Commit as part of that to stopping the use of coal. They haven’t agreed to do that. And then the wealthy countries to agree to transfer quite a lot of money, well over 100 billion a year, to the developing world.

Now, will that happen? One is very hopeful. One can only be hopeful. There are some good signs. Let me say that there are some discouraging signs. The G7 countries got together in Cornwall this summer and one of the things they tried to do was to reach an agreement to stop the use of coal, even among themselves, those large economies and they couldn’t agree to do that. That was disappointing. It’s not final and nothing is ever final.

The hope is that there’s been a lot of energy put into it since, which there has, and we may see an agreement to have at least the top countries get over the use of coal.

A very important and positive thing happened last week. President Xi of China announced that there would be no more investment by China in building coal plants outside China. That was an enormous shift because one of the things that we, at ClientEarth have been most worried about and working on very hard is preventing the building of new coal plants and then shutting down existing coal plants through legal tools.

Inside China where we work, we were making the argument that coal is a bad investment as well. That’s an argument, a kind of corporate law investment argument that has worked in cases in courtrooms in Europe and in boardrooms in Japan.

We were making a similar argument to China saying there are all these climate reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but it’s also simply about investment. We actually wrote an economics memo with the Ministry of Environment on that point in or around January of this year.

It went all the way up to the top of the hierarchy. We received that a moratorium on building coal was placed outsdie China. Then in September, President Xi announced no new coal outside of China, so that’s hundreds potentially of coal plants that have been stopped – and going into the COP, that’s a very exciting signal.

One hopes that the developed countries will say, OK, China is building no coal outside so, over time, we’re going to commit to getting off coal ourselves. Unless the world gets out of coal, it’s going to be very hard to meet the Paris Agreement targets.

David: That example with China is a very good case study, almost in pragmatics and how you might approach it from one perspective, but also seeing the type of argument that’s going to work best for the context. In a way, that’s a real testament to a type of legal activism where you have to be pragmatic to try and get the best result. In this instance, it’s the best result for the planet. To see China make that sort of commitment is also really encouraging. I’m sure, for you that must have been a real victory.

James: Yes, it was very exciting. Just yesterday I was giving a speech in a meeting in Beijing, with Chinese officials and Westerners, and everyone was celebrating this victory. There is a Chinese government organisation called Greening the Belt and Road Coalition, and I’m part of that. There was a meeting where we were celebrating this big change in policy as a hugely dramatic step in the right direction.

We’ve needed some really big steps in the right direction, and this is one – and will encourage others, I hope it should do.

Find out more about our ClientEarth Conversation Series online where you can also book your place on the Environment and Energy Law Society roundtable to discuss the issues raised in the series with fellow staff and students.


A ClientEarth Conversation: Hope, students and climate activism

The planet is in the grip of a climate crisis, and COP26 maybe the most important meeting that will happen for the planet in our lifetime. In the first of our ClientEarth Conversation Series, postgraduate research student David McKeown talks to James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth and an Honorary Professor of Law, about the positive role law graduates can play in creating the frameworks needed to address the diverse challenges of climate change.

climate change

David: Law can unquestionably play an important role in environmental activism. But what would your message be to students who are aspiring to engage with these sorts of environmental issues through law?

James: Keep going! What has been the case is that law has taken a deeper and deeper role in protecting the environment since the beginning, and only through creating systems of rules that are understandable, participatory, and that are agreeable to the regulated communities and to the affected parties, can you wind up protecting and protecting nature and the climate. So I think of law as a system of rules that is agreed at any one point – it’s like a photograph of what does a particular society believe is important, you know?

And that’s what the law shows, as we go forward and as we’re creating greater regulation to protect oceans, to protect the climate, all of these things are developing and developing quite quickly.

‘There is more law to make, so we need more good environmental lawyers. And then there’s more law to enforce, so we need more good environmental lawyers. People who really understand environmental law are going to take, I think, a more and more central place in society as it goes forward, because these things aren’t easy to do.”

Having a system of rules that regulates human interaction with the extreme complexity of nature in a way that becomes harmless, is what we’re looking for. That’s not an easy thing to conceive, to put in place or to enforce.

The reason we used the name ClientEarth is we like to think of the earth as the client and everybody who lives on it as the client.   And if you’re a lawyer, you have to talk to a client. So how do you talk to a client if you’re an environmental lawyer? It’s through science.

Science tells you what the earth needs, what these systems need – and then because that understanding is deepening and changing all the time, environmental law and regulations will always be constantly evolving. So it’s a living system, unlike many areas of law.

A competition lawyer friend of mine said, ‘what I do is I just fight for one big company against another big company to move money from one box to another box. Who cares? I didn’t do anything good for the world, really.’ And he said, ‘what you do is you’re trying to create a whole system of rules and enforce existing rules that allow society to move forward in its relationship with the earth’, so it’s always evolving.

It’ll never be a boring, formal, fixed system and that’s what I like about it. It’s one of the few areas of law that is itself a living system and it has to be. The lawyers who are doing it are the ones who will be making it.

One of the cool things about working in ClientEarth is that all of the lawyers working there are doing things that have never been done before. That’s not normal in any kind of profession, even if you’re a surgeon and certainly not among lawyers, so most of what you’re doing when you’re working in this space is at the cutting edge – completely new.

And when you’re doing it, if you’re successful, you will personally help save civilization, because that’s what we’re working on now.

With all the problems, with civilization potentially in danger – these rules and these understandings are what give the possibility for us to save the future for our descendants.

So is environmental law important? Wow – it’s really important.

The other thing that we’ve been doing, which is very cool, is bringing other areas of law into the service of the environment. So this is another thing to consider while you’re studying. About five years ago, we said if you’re going to save the environment, you have to move the money in the right direction. You have to move trillions of dollars away from investment in fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas, all that. You have to move it all to renewable energy, for example.

Well, how do you do that? When we say environmental law on its own it isn’t enough, because it regulates bad behaviour, but it doesn’t go to the heart of the money and the decisions about where money go, and the responsibilities of how to spend money in the right way.

So we said, OK, let’s become experts in company law, in securities law and banking law, in the law of fiduciary duty, pensions and insurance law. We brought in colleagues who are experts in all those things, and we said, OK, this is all the law that has to do with decisions about money.

How do we use the obligations that are already in those legal arenas to change behaviour so that it improves for the environment?

And that’s been a really interesting puzzle. How do you look at securities law as if it were environmental law? How do you look at banking law as if it were environmental law? We’ve been doing very cool things – it’s very dynamic.

When you think of working in an environment we look at the whole world and we say, how do we use all of that? How do we use all of those tools to improve human beings interaction with the planet and make it harmless and make it true?

James Thornton and David McKeown

David: Sometimes the law can seem quite a dry or stodgy subject, but actually it’s incredibly creative when it’s directed at meaningful problems like climate change and you ask yourself, what kind of methodology or approach are we going to try and go down here?

The interdisciplinarity between law and different perspectives on law – is really interesting and it’s great to hear what you’re doing that Client Earth. I know that in the Law School, there’s been collaborations between environmental lawyers and employment lawyers, and I think that is a pattern you see manifesting in different places.

It’s so encouraging because it seems to suggest that there’s a breaking down of this old-fashioned conception of what nature and the environment might be. A movement towards something that is more akin to our own experiences, and hopefully, that will produce some encouraging results.

To have someone in the Law School that is so heavily involved with climate activism is really important, because I think that a lot of the ideas that we have, need to be directed towards praxis, because the urgency of what we’re looking at as well is something that is irrespective of what line of environmental law you’re engaged in.

It’s always important to bring it back to praxis and think about how we can make actual progress and change in this area. I think Bristol Law School is very fortunate to have someone like you who’s been successfully doing that for many, many years now, to speak with students and hopefully encourage them to study environmental law.

James: You’re right, praxis is what it’s all about. It’s what we do, and ideology has no place it – it’s about what you can actually do. And when you get the sense that you can do something, it generates enormous hope in yourself and in others.

There was a study last week that 70 percent of young people are having anxiety about climate change. Very understandable – but for me, how you get beyond that anxiety is to say, ah, there is something I can do about it.

For people studying law, there is an immense amount that they can do about it. It’s really self-empowering, hope-giving activity that you can share with others.

It is truly a great honour to have been made Honorary Professor at Bristol, because I’ve always admired the Law School and the work that gets done there and also its students who come out of it.

I’ve always loved working with students and love the opportunity students have of thinking about things from square one. Imagining what would the law have to look like if we were really going to save the planet and if we’re really going to save civilization.

If you go into it that way, you will see things in a different way. That’s an amazing opportunity – and an amazing opportunity for me to be an Honorary Professor. It’s a big deal!

Find out more about our ClientEarth Conversation Series online where you can also book your place on the Environment and Energy Law Society roundtable to discuss the issues raised in the series with fellow staff and students.