Sustainable Law Firms

Law firm sustainability is a strategic business shift that aims to prevent socially and environmentally damaging operations in the legal industry. This could be by reducing an organization’s carbon footprint while also establishing a healthy work-life balance for employees.

There’s heightened market demand for sustainable practices with robust and transparent disclosure. For instance, both public and private clients are seeking legal counsel with responsible environmental and social practices. E.g. Delta Air Lines and Microsoft Corp pledged to drastically curb their carbon emissions, taking into account the carbon footprint of their associated law firms.

Hence, the business case for law firm sustainability is compelling. As such, you can use this Green Business Bureau article as your starter sustainability guide, to help you become a purpose-driven organization.

Sustainability challenges in the legal industry

The main sustainability challenges faced by the legal industry seem to stem from outdated business models, such that to continue operations, firms need to put aside a surplus amount of resources and time to maintain authorization. This is having negative knock-on effects impacting environmental and social systems.

The legal industry and its negative environmental effects

We’ve identified four main environmental challenges the legal industry faces, and we’ve listed these below:

  1. Habitual use of consumables such as paper and single-use plastics.
  2. Water consumption in the office can be excessive.
  3. Offices demand fossil fuel energy to power lighting, air conditioning, and heating systems.
  4. Unaccounted scope 3 emissions from the employee commute, and business travel.
  5. Excessive waste generated from the cafeteria and/or break rooms.

The legal industry and its negative social effects

Sustainability isn’t specifically about the environmental impacts of a business. The social elements of sustainability are just as important, and with this in mind, below we’ve listed the top two social challenges a law firm may face:

  1. Long working hours can lead to poor employee well-being, high stress, burnout, and mental health issues.
  2. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues.

13 Tips to Creating a More Sustainable Law Firm

Thinking about the main environmental challenges law firms face, we’ve got together a list of 13 green initiatives to help you create a more sustainable law firm.

Creating a sustainable law firm demands responsible consumerism

Tip #1: Sustainable procurement

The Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) program describes the practice of purchasing products and services that have less of an impact on the environment. The EPP encourages the exclusive purchasing of products that are certified in sustainability (which showcases a brand’s commitment to being green).

Following the EPP’s guidelines is an excellent way for any law firm to make sustainable procurement decisions. This means reducing – if not eliminating – the use of consumables such as single-use plastic and paper. Going digital, and turning to plastic alternatives and reusables, are low-cost means of aligning better with the EPP program. For more information on sustainable procurement visit the US Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

Tip #2: Reduce waste, recycle, and compost

The average office worker generates about two pounds worth of paper and paperboard products every day, which contributes to the 10,000 sheets of copy paper discarded annually.

To be sustainable, law firms need to address this waste problem, and abide by the rules of a circular economy. This means waste material is reused rather than thrown into landfills.

Below we’ve listed a few ways you can reduce waste (paper, cardboard waste, plus more) at the office and adopt a circular economic model:

  • Invest in an online, cloud-based documentation platform to reduce the need for paper.
  • Start a compost area in the breakroom for leftover and forgotten food.
  • Recycle more than just paper. E.g. light bulbs, batteries, ink and toner cartridges, and electronics (which all have second-life uses).
  • Partner with local businesses who incorporate waste and by-products into primary products, such as shredded paper for compost or companies that revive old electronic equipment.

Creating a sustainable law firm means reducing water consumption

It’s estimated that each office employee will use 50 liters of water every day. 43% of this water comes from toilet flushing, 27% from washing (sinks and showers), 20% from urinal flushing, 9% from canteens, and 1% from cleaning services.

There are two main reasons why effective water management and reduction is needed in business:

The first is risk mitigation. Effective water management in the office lowers an organization’s reliance on our fragile water systems.

The second is cost reduction. Taking control of business water use will also benefit the bottom-line. The cost of water and associated services has risen well above the consumer price index. To offset these costs, organizations can save money by replacing aging water supply systems with more efficient, modern technology. Implementing freshwater efficiency and saving measures in the office can reduce operating costs while meeting an organization’s sustainability goals.

For instance, if you have in-office showers, then a significant amount of energy is used to heat water. By reducing water demand, water-saving technology – when applied to systems that heat water e.g. showers – can save nearly 3,500 gallons of water and 410 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, keeping your energy and utility bills down.

With this in mind, let’s have a look at how your business can save water.

Tip #3: Water-saving plumbing fixtures

To assess the age and functionality of existing bathroom plumbing fixtures in your office building, check out WaterSense. This is a voluntary partnership program sponsored by the U.S. EPA, and is used as a resource to help organizations save water and identify water-efficient products. WaterSense at Work provides guidance to boost water efficiency in office buildings.

Once you’ve assessed the efficiency of your current bathroom plumbing fixtures, look to invest in new low-flow fixtures like toilets, faucet aerators, and showerheads. Such technology provides the same utility compared to alternatives, yet they’re designed to use half the amount of water.

Take low-flow toilets as an example. These toilets can distinguish between solid and liquid waste and control the amount of water used to drain that waste accordingly.(Plus you’ll experience fewer clog problems because the toilet drainage passage is wider).

Tip #4: Educate your employees

Creating a workplace culture that emphasizes and takes pride in efficiency is a vital component of any water conservation plan.

Employee engagement programs are the building blocks to create a culture of sustainability. Engaged employees will contribute to a company’s success. It’s therefore important to seek to interest employees in sustainability and provide them with the information they need to act. For more information on how you can create an effective employee engagement strategy, read: 5 Ways to Use Employee Engagement and Sustainability to Motivate a Return to the Office.

Strengthening water conservation awareness and education among employees will equip your team with the skills, knowledge, and tools to recognize water waste problems, and think of innovative solutions to reuse wastewater within the facility. Your aim is to drive a behavioral change whereby employees are conscious to turn off the taps.

Creating a sustainable law firm means to reduce fossil-fuel demand

There are three main ways organizations can reduce fossil-fuel energy demand:

  1. Switch to renewable energy sources
  2. Conserve energy
  3. Improve energy efficiency

Tip #5: Use a renewable energy source

Switching to a renewable energy source to power operations will reduce an organization’s carbon footprint, improve a company’s brand image, and provide substantial cost savings. Most renewable energy sources produce little to no greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), in contrast to carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy.

With this in mind, as a business you have three options to incorporate renewable energy into your energy supply. You can either switch to a green tariff, purchase a Renewable Energy Certificate or Office Power Purchase Agreement, or install your own renewable energy sources on site. For more information read: GHG Protocol: Scope 2 Emissions Explained.

Tip #6: Use a smart and efficient temperature control system

According to Energy Star, heating and cooling account for 42% of the average annual electric bill in the US. Heating and cooling systems are used together to create a comfortable room temperature. Overheating and working in cold environments can cause serious issues for people’s health and well-being, and negatively impacts an employee’s mental and physical performance.

A smart thermostat is an energy conservation measure that can save up to $145 per year on utility bills through intelligent technology and temperature regulation. Smart thermostats use sensors and algorithms to collect and analyze heating and cooling data. This data is then used to optimize room temperature, upping usage at peak times of the day. All in all, this lowers your electricity bill and reduces GHG emissions by making internal temperature control systems more efficient.

Tip #7: Establish effective energy-conservation practices

Many conservation methods demand a behavioral change, whether that’s habitually turning off the lights, lowering the thermostat, or regularly checking and maintaining systems. There are technologies available to support this behavioral change and overcome behavioral barriers, such as motion detectors that control lights or programmable thermostats that adjust the room temperature.

Below are some quick tips to think about:

  1. Unplug devices when they’re not in use. This will prevent phantom energy waste (appliances continue to suck energy from the power source when they’re plugged in but not in use). Use a power trip so you can easily disconnect multiple devices at once.
  2. Create an office environment that takes full advantage of the available natural light to reduce dependency on artificial lighting.

Tip #8: Choose laptops over desktops and repurposed electronics

A new laptop will generally consume around 80% less electricity than the desktop equivalent. Hence, compared to desktops, laptops can have a smaller carbon footprint during their lives. Switching from desktops to laptops for the office is an energy conservation tip to reduce fossil fuel energy demand.

Plus, due to their small and compact nature, laptops demand fewer materials (resources) from our environment. When choosing your laptop, look for sustainable laptop brands – those that are more energy efficient, use recycled materials, have a reduced carbon footprint and restrict the use of hazardous materials from suppliers.

While laptops are better than desktops, that does not mean these products should come without reservations. The components of a typical laptop can contain heavy metals, particularly in batteries, that are damaging to the environment on disposal. These metals are released into the environment, even during the recycling process, so be sure to keep you electronic assets in use for as long as is viable.

Tip #9: Reduce commuting, transportation, and other business-related travel

Splitting total GHG emissions by economic sector, the EPA found that transportation accounts for 29% of the U.S. emissions. With this in mind, any sustainable law firm needs to help their employees have a greener commute, to significantly reduce their scope 3 emissions (which often goes hand-in-hand with becoming a more attractive employer).

Companies can reduce emissions from commuting, transportation and other business travel by:

  • Supporting a work-from-home policy,
  • Encouraging public transportation,
  • Implement a cycle-to-work scheme,
  • Implement a car-share scheme.

The success of these initiatives depends on the level of employee motivation, and you want to ensure your employees stay motivated. To engage your employees look to offer monetary and non-monetary rewards. E.g. you could provide financial compensation each time the employee uses an alternative means of transportation. Or you can provide non-monetary rewards, such as vouchers or extra vacation days.

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on the impacts of the daily commute on air quality and Earth’s climatic systems. During this time, the overall reduction in human mobility and the shift to remote work was stated to reduce emissions by as much as 17% by early April 2020, compared to the mean average temperature during comparable months in 2019. As such, organizations and individuals today are taking a look at how much they travel, in an attempt to permanently decrease their mobility-linked carbon footprint.

Tip #10: Hold virtual meetings

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed companies to develop innovative ways to continue daily operations remotely. In-person events generally require a significant amount of energy, from travel to resource and energy use on-site. Law firms wanting to reduce their carbon footprint need to address this and look for less carbon-intensive ways of hosting meetings and company events.

The introduction of platforms like Zoom, Teams, and WebEx allows parties to meet online, give presentations, and make long-distance calls through virtual interaction. Researchers at Cornell University found that moving meetings online could reduce the carbon footprint of those meetings by 94%. Hence holding virtual meetings is an effective energy conservation technique.

A sustainable law firm is concerned for employee welfare

Lawyers are notorious for working long hours in high-pressure environments. Plus they have the added stress of achieving a favorable outcome for the client. It’s an environment that breeds an unhealthy work-life balance, as careers are often put before an individual’s personal life.

LawCare recently released the findings from its 2021 Life in the Law. This survey found the majority of respondents (69%) has experience mental ill-health whether clinically or self-diagnosed, in the 12 months before completing the survey. The most common symptoms included anxiety (61%), low mood (48%) and depression (2%). Hence, long working hours and stress are social issues that need immediate attention.

Tip #11: Design with biophilic elements

Biophilic design is the process of designing a connection between nature and the built environment, benefiting human well-being and the environment. The value of a biophilic design has been well documented by studies showing the psychological benefits of reconnecting humans to nature.

Biophilic design elements include:

  • Using a green office design (e.g. using green roof and wall architecture).
  • Letting natural light into the indoor space.
  • Introducing nature into the office, such as potted plants.
  • Providing a green space for employees to spend their breaks outside.

All of the above elements will make the working office environment a healthier place for employees to spend 8 hours a day in.

Tip #12: Support the health and well-being of employees

A law firm has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that work does no harm to an employee’s health and well-being. To act as a guide, below we’ve listed five recommendations for companies to take action and bolster the health and well-being of their employees.

  • Provide healthy meal option in canteens and break rooms (look to source local and organic ingredients).
  • Encourage a culture that champion physical activity. Maybe set up team sporting events, weekly classes and provide employees with a sponsored gym membership.
  • Provide incentives for healthy commuting behavior, such as walking, running or cycling to work.
  • Kit out workplaces with ergonomic equipment and conduct regular evaluations.
  • Discourage overtime, and create a work culture that champions a good work-life-balance. If the work cannot be completed in the contracted hours, the work load needs to be reduced and any issues stifling productivity need to be addressed.
  • Ensure upper management teams leader by example.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has presented businesses with a critical inflection point to explore in more depth how they’re interacting both negatively and positively with the health of the individuals that are at the heart of the company.

Tip #13: Encourage diversity

The goal of workplace diversity is to create a culture where individual differences are respected and all employees are treated equally, to receive the same opportunities for growth and advancement. According to McKinney and Company, this can lead to increased company performance through better decision making, innovation, and improved customer orientation and satisfaction. Listed below are 6 ways to increase workplace diversity. Listed below are 6 ways to increase workplace diversity, as given by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers:

  • Highlight diversity on the career page of your website.
  • Provide targeted internships and scholarships.
  • Conduct diversity and inclusion training.
  • Celebrate employee differences.
  • Provide unconscious bias training for hiring staff.
  • Incorporate diversity into company policies and practices.

Verify your sustainability program with the Green Business Bureau

Sustainability is about making long-term business investments, to make lasting benefits for the environment, employees, communities and a business’s bottom-line. Yet, without measuring and recording what initiatives have been implemented and when, it’s impossible for an organization to decipher these benefits. This is why a sustainability audit is essential.

A sustainability audit can identify inefficiencies and establish a baseline for improvement by reviewing a company’s performance on an environmental, social, and economic front. This boosts awareness of the issues and promotes understanding regarding the importance of a sustainability revolution.

To help, the Green Business Bureau (GBB) is a service that guides and audits your sustainability program. GBB’s EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner host a plethora of green initiatives which you can filter by cost and impact, to help you tailor your sustainability program to meet your specific needs. Keep track of what green initiatives have been implemented and when, to measure the benefits of these initiatives over time.

You can sign up to the Green Business Bureau here to get started.

Start your green journey by implementing the sustainability tips given in this article, to create a sustainable law firm with a higher-purpose for long-term success.

Dot has a Bachelors of Science in Coastal Environmental Science from Louisiana State University and is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Global Sustainability, with a concentration in Food Sustainability and Security with a Sustainable Business certificate at the University of South Florida. She is passionate about educating her friends, family, and the public about the environment and how easy sustainability can be. In her free time, she loves to spend time with her dog, cooking, and anything true crime!

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