Taking the legal route to sustainability

Nature of Business radio, created and hosted by Chrissy Coughlin, is a weekly show on business and environment.

A chance encounter can change everything, as Carolyn Kaplan -- the first full-time chief sustainability officer at major law firm Nixon Peabody -- can attest. When she met Joe Selle from IBM (NYSE: IBM) on an airplane in 2007, it ended up changing her legal career.

Selle, who happened to sit next to her on the plane, was tackling sustainability issues at Big Blue, and Carolyn was fascinated by the opportunities he had to make real change. She thought he had the perfect job.

At the same time, momentum for sustainability was building at Nixon Peabody: Managers were witnessing a huge shift in the way companies were looking at sustainability and saw big opportunities for the law firm if it could help clients keep up with changing environmental laws and regulations, as well as better incorporate sustainability in its own practice. 

A formal pitch and a few months later, Kaplan was doing the same thing as the stranger on the plane at her own firm.

With its Legally Green initiative, Nixon Peabody has demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainability. And the law firm believes that leadership has given it a competitive edge. Many clients today want their lawyers to have a firm grasp of environmental sustainability issues and how they influence risk and other factors.

It also thinks its sustainability initiatives have helped it retain employees. After all, employees increasingly want to work for responsible companies.  Seemingly simple changes -- such as using less paper, turning off lights and getting LEED certification for its office spaces (Nixon Peabody has four LEED-certified offices) -- can make a huge difference in attracting and keeping people who are working 80 billable hours per week.

Carolyn says the opportunity to partner with others -- such as Earthwatch and 1% for the Planet -- is her favorite aspect of the job, which she has held for five years now. She also collaborates with peers in other firms to determine best practices.  One such is example is her work with the American Bar Association, which included working with other lawyers to develop a triple-bottom-line policy.

It's encouraging to see a law firm create a full-time CSO position, which could lead to others doing the same. With all the influence that law firms have, they could significantly shift the needle on sustainability. I was struck by Carolyn's energy and her fierce determination to make real change, one lawyer at a time.

In this week's podcast, she speaks with me about the Legally Green initiative, the growing client demand for sustainability and the progress she's made so far.

George Papoulias edited this podcast.

Photo of judicial 3D gavel and Earth by Lukiyanova Natalia / frenta via Shutterstock.