Adding the Environment to the Scales of Justice

Adding the Environment to the Scales of Justice

Behind the splashy headlines chronicling the corporate world’s embrace of all things green, a quiet revolution is taking place amongst the law firms that serve it.

Legal firms, which are enormous consumers of paper, are increasingly turning to green business practices to save money and natural resources, drive efficiency and align their values with existing clients -- and companies searching for a sustainability-minded law firm. Now attorneys have a new law-specific resource called the Green Guide for Lawyers to help them minimize their environmental impacts.

"If you’re not attuned to these issues, you’re at a competitive disadvantage in my mind," said David Scott, an attorney with Luper Neidenthal and Logan in Columbus, Ohio.

Scott served as chair of the Meritas Leadership Institute, which recently unveiled the Green Guide for Lawyers, a best practices handbook that follows in the footsteps of the American Bar Association-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (ABA-EPA) Law Office Climate Change Challenge launched last year.

"You’ve got a small group of attorneys in the game and then there’s a greater body of attorneys that never think about these things," Scott said.

Green Law

The greening of the corporate sector has picked up steam in recent years, and as those corporations attempt to improve their bottom lines and mitigate risk from impending federal environmental regulations, they turn to their legal teams for advice.

"It matters to clients," Scott said. "What’s important to clients is important to attorneys."

The emphasis on environmental and sustainability issues becomes more acute for those firms whose client lists tread heavily toward the green sector.

"We have a number of clients involved in green business," said Adam Umanoff, a partner with the law firm of Chadbourne and Parke, which recently announced a corporate green initiative to curb paper consumption and tap into renewable energy. "Ignoring their concerns isn’t good business practice."

Historically, lawyers entered the environmental realm in one of two ways, according to Josh Arnold, founder of the consulting firm 360GREEN Inc. in Madison, Wis. Arnold, who also earned a degree from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., worked as an advisor for the Meritas Green Guide for Lawyers.

Attorneys could work for a nonprofit, or other organization on the "good side," or they could work for a larger firm that represents polluters or those perceived to be on the "bad side." But the concept of the triple bottom line -- based on financial, social and environmental performance -- has spilled into sectors that previously had no association with being green. These days, businesses across nearly every sector are addressing sustainability in some way.

"The old dichotomy of 'good’ versus 'bad’ has gone away," Arnold said. "Now you can do the right thing no matter what sector you’re working in. It becomes a way for attorneys to deliver additional value for clients, no matter who the client is."

If Lawyers Can Do It, Your Firm Can, Too

Reduce your paper usage: Set your printers to print double-sided and encourage employees to print sparingly. Buy paper with high post-consumer recycled content.

Ditch the bottled water: Installing water filters can cut bottled water consumption and associated waste. Supply reusable water bottles or mugs.

Promote carpooling or mass transit: Encourage and/or subsidize carpooling and public transportation for your employees, such as through pre-tax commuter checks.

Embrace green cleaning products: Phase out products made with harsh chemicals in favor of those that are environmentally friendly.

Power down: Enable power management features on computers to reduce energy use and expense.

Law firms can position themselves as trusted business advisors if they can gain sustainability skills, Arnold said. With future regulations on the horizon and a likely cap-and-trade system that stands to turn some sectors into winners or losers, lawyers will be at the forefront of the transition to a low-carbon economy by making the case for their clients.

"They can provide a whole other set of counseling for clients," Arnold said. "This counseling is well within the traditional parameters of attorney advice because it’s about risk management."

A number of climate change law practices have sprung up around the country. For instance, Umanoff’s firm, Chadbourne and Parke has launched a climate change practice that is being led by former New York Gov. George E. Pataki and John Cahill, the former commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Potential clients are showing more interest in how law firms are addressing sustainability, said Daniel Eisenberg, an attorney with the law firm Beveridge and Diamond who also works with ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Change Challenge.

"When a big company asks for firms’ request for proposals, they’re now asking questions about green, much like they do for diversity," Eisenberg said.

Many attorneys spoke of the need to demonstrate leadership. "We think it’s important to show leadership within the business and legal communities so that others will follow our lead," said Jonathan Storper, a partner with the law firm Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco.

The firm’s green initiatives, modeled after the city of San Francisco’s Green Business Certification, also had other ancillary benefits, Storper said.

"It’s actually raised morale in the firm," Storper said. "Everyone in the firm said, 'Wow, the firm is doing something good.’"

Their Footprint

Law firms are service businesses, and, as such, carry a carbon footprint similar to other office-oriented environments, such as accounting firms. But attorneys also are notorious consumers of paper and may generate a dozen hard-copy drafts to perfect a single legal brief. Most courts don’t allow double-sided legal filings.

The law firm Arnold and Porter conducted in informal survey of eight firms showing that in 2006, attorneys used between 20,000 and 100,000 sheets of paper each, according to the American Bar Association. That’s equal to roughly 10 to 50 sheets of paper per work hour, up to a half-ton of paper per year. One ton of paper can produce nine tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the organization said.

"The bugaboo for lawyers is, and for all intents and purposes, probably always will be paper because lawyers seem to think that every thought we have is sacred and must be memorialized with a piece of paper or it didn’t really happen," Scott said.

Scott’s law office developed proprietary software that converts incoming faxes into a digital format that is automatically filtered into a corresponding computer case file, removing the need for someone to sort and deliver the printed faxes. The company enacted a mandatory double-sided printing policy, and the firm invested in paper with higher recycled content.

"We saved $2,000 net despite increasing files and buying more expensive paper," Scott said.

Consumption of large amounts of paper presents an ideal opportunity to both step up recycling and change behaviors to reduce use overall. There are many other examples of low-hanging fruit, including water use: Scott explained how his firm phased out bottled water and installed water filters in offices, and ended up saving 20,000 bottles of water in a year.

Scott’s firm offers resources to arrange employee carpooling and sponsors “lunch-and-learn” events to foster environmental education. It also established “Conservation Corner,” a weekly newsletter that discusses trends in sustainability.

Energy consumption and business travel also contribute significantly to a firm's footprint, and can be large hurdles to overcome. Scott’s law firm encourages its employees to power down electronics when not in use and has switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs. At the corporate level, Meritas, whose members are found in some 80 countries, now conducts orientations remotely rather than in person to curb travel.

Some initiatives require a not-insignificant capital investment. For instance, Umanoff’s firm Chadbourne and Parke decided to buy renewable energy certificates to offset 60 percent of the energy used in its U.S. offices. The company also spent money replacing toilets with low-flush models, buying reusable water bottles and switching to biodegradable silverware.

"It’s the right thing to do," Umanoff said. "It was a modest cost investment to the firm so therefore it was not overwhelming."

The Green Guide for Lawyers

Several resources exist to help lawyers green their operations. Storper's firm, Hanson Bridgett, sought guidance from San Francisco's Green Business Certification Program. Dozens of attorneys also have committed to the Massachusetts Bar Association Green Guidelines, which focus on eight areas of sustainability.

Umanoff’s firm recently became a certified Leader in the ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge, one of the most prominent programs in the area. It launched in 2007 under the guidance of David Friedland, chair of the air quality committee of the ABA's section on environment, energy and resources, and Howard Hoffman, vice chair of the air quality committee.

"Howard and David were believers that law firms and ABA should be taking a leadership position on this," Eisenberg said. "What we needed to do was come up with a program that wasn’t going to ask so much from firms but something to get them involved on a basic level to get educated in sustainability."

The program draws on previously established EPA initiatives, such as WasteWise, Green Power Partnership and Energy Star. A steady trickle of firms joined the program initially, picking up speed around the end of 2007, and just last month the program added around 15 firms, pushing the total past 60.

The Meritas Green Guide for Lawyers includes elements of the ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Change Challenge, as well as additional measures to help its members operate more sustainably. It is the result of a yearlong study by the Meritas Leadership Institute into how sustainability would present legal challenges to new and existing industries. Meritas is a nonprofit network of more than 170 independent law firms from around the world.

The guide it devised is divided into three tiers of initiatives: Sustainability Advocate, Partner and Leader. Each tier contains initiatives that fall into the Triple Bottom Line categories of people, profit and planet.

"The first tier is designed to raise awareness at law firms," Arnold said. "The idea is the first step to incorporating sustainability is to at least be aware of the firm’s footprint."

These first-tier actions include encouraging public transit for workers, recycling, switching to environmentally friendly cleaning products and conducting energy audits to identify ways to reduce energy consumptions.

"The second tier prompts law firms to start implementing sustainability and efficiency measures at the law firm itself," Arnold said, such as investing in Energy Star equipment and pledging to cut resource consumption by 5 percent. Dedicating pro bono services to an environmental or sustainability organization is included.

The third tier involves more rigorous measures, such certifying its office space with the U.S. Green Building Council, sponsoring a nonprofit to become carbon-neutral through the purchase of carbon offsets and allocating additional pro bono hours.

"The guide is a start, and then we’re going to rely on the creativity of the Meritas member firms to implement the guide in lots of ways we could never imagine," Arnold said.

Member firms will then share successes and challenges from implementing the initaitives, said Meritas President and CEO Tanna Moore.

"That’s one of our core initiatives, to share best practices," Moore said. "There are a number of firms that have gone through the ABA-EPA approval process ... and others that are just learning about it."

The guide’s authors tried to specifically address the unique role of attorneys through the pro bono work aspects and counseling of clients in sustainability matters, Arnold said. Yet many of the initiatives could be used by businesses outside the legal realm.

"We also had to make it something that appealed to not only attorneys but people who actually run the offices," Arnold said.

Scott used his law firm as a guinea pig for some of the initiatives listed in the Green Guide for Lawyers. "I wanted to see if these ideas were cockamamie or practical," Scott said. "Overwhelmingly, we found them extremely practical."

But he admits he did take some flak at first.

"One my partners said, 'I thought it was the dumbest idea I ever heard,’" Scott said.

The tune of his partner and other skeptics at his law firm changed when they saw the initiatives’ benefits: The company saved money and generated more business, including three new clients within a year that can be directly attributed to their new sustainability credentials.

"Now,” Scott said, “they are starting to become true believers."

Tilde Herrera is associate editor at GreenBiz.com.

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