Interview: James Thornton

The founder and chief executive of ClientEarth has expanded his staff from zero to 60 in five years

James Thornton
James Thornton

The environmental law firm ClientEarth has only one customer on its books - the big chunk of rock beneath our feet that is home to seven billion of us. It is a huge responsibility, but the rewards of doing the job correctly have serious implications.

James Thornton, founder and chief executive of ClientEarth, has taken the charity to a team of 60 in five years. He worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council for 10 years before he was approached by the McIntosh Foundation and asked to conduct a research exercise on how the law was employed in Europe to combat environmental damage.

"Only a handful of lawyers were working with the main environmental groups such as Greenpeace," says Thornton. "They didn't use the law in ways that seemed obvious to me. I discovered there were 15,000 corporate lobbyists in Brussels: the inequality of forces was dramatic."

ClientEarth was born and, after a year of working alone, Thornton hired two lawyers. A year later, he had 16 staff, mainly environmental lawyers and scientists, whom he managed himself.

Growth was supported by grants from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, which asked Thornton for his assurance that he would not renege on his promise to support other environmental NGOs with legal advice. He did not.

After three years, the charity employed 30 staff, prompting Thornton to hire his management team: a director of programmes, a development director and a director of finance. Thornton also began to institute structures that would pay dividends in the years to follow.

"We began a development process to clarify our mission and values," he says. "I asked everyone and the responses were consistent across the organisation. We have built our development and team structures around our mission values."

Strict financial controls and a clear development route made the next stage of ClientEarth's growth easy. "Growth from 16 to 30 staff was a bit of a struggle, but 30 to 60 was smooth," he says. "We're known enough that people find us now. One woman came from a big law firm and said she had worked on the side of the 'dark' for a long time but now she wanted to work for the 'light'. We also get young people who feel we're the only place they can express their expertise and passion."

The main challenge with rapid growth is maintaining coordination and staying true to the organisation's initial vision.

For others in this position, Thornton has this advice: "Spend time putting the development work in place, and make sure the place is well-managed and financial systems are excellent," he says. "You need to have a laser-like focus on the strategy needed to achieve your goals."

ClientEarth's legal work has seen it sue the UK government over London's air quality and put it on a collision course with the Polish government over coal-fired power stations, with the latter denouncing it as a harbour for environmental terrorists.

But Thornton, a trained Buddhist priest, is nothing if not sanguine and his philosophy informs his management style.

"Buddhism makes you calm and more open, and you learn to distance yourself from your ego and work according to the interests of the group," he says. "It also makes you a deep listener."

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