Far from being an unnecessary distraction in a difficult market, policies and practices that reduce law firms’ impact on the environment are good for business.

In a difficult economy, focusing on a law firm’s carbon footprint may seem like a well-meaning vanity project – conjuring up, variously, images of a stately pleasure dome whose computer-controlled green glass moves to maximise the use of natural light, or a managing partner standing before an array of recycling bins down the side return, while the big brand ABS round the corner picks up all of their clients.

And it is true that the Legal Sector Alliance, a grouping of law firms committed to publishing and reducing firms’ carbon footprint, was launched in October 2007 at the tail end of the good times. Eminent corporate firms – including DLA Piper and four magic circle firms – were among the founding members which welcomed Prince Charles to the launch in an ultra-energy efficient building in London SE1.

But far from holing the alliance below the waterline, recession and stagnant growth have coincided with the alliance’s membership growing to 269 firms, including firms of all sizes from all parts of the market. This leads LSA chair, DLA Piper’s global co-chief executive and managing partner Sir Nigel Knowles, to conclude: ‘Despite the challenging economic conditions, law firms are taking their commitment to combating climate change more seriously than ever before.’

Indeed, as the Gazette reported earlier this year, 57 LSA member firms which were able to provide the most detailed levels of information had reduced their carbon emissions by 29,000 tonnes in just one year – the equivalent of two magic circle law firms’ carbon footprint.

Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson stresses that action can be taken by firms of all sizes: ‘The heavy commitments made by larger firms do not mean that smaller practices cannot or should not reduce their carbon footprint. There are simple steps that smaller firms can take to tackle carbon emissions, including measuring their energy consumption and minimising waste such as paper and office supplies.’

Whether firms have chosen to aim for a reduction in carbon emissions through the membership and support of the LSA, or by acting independently, they have done so by concentrating on at least four core areas: measuring carbon footprint to provide a baseline against which progress can be tracked; minimising resource use; ‘engaging with employees’; and working with suppliers.

The office

But lawyers’ concern at the planet’s rising temperature aside, why has the momentum built here at a time when parts of the government, including (reportedly) the chancellor, assume that ‘greening’ a business will distract business leaders from growth?

Well, look at this issue for any length of time, and it becomes clear that introducing measures that help the environment will reinforce a well-run law firm.

According to the LSA: ‘Firms are increasingly experiencing upward pressure from their employees to take action on climate change,’ and ‘people are increasingly asking potential employers about their environmental policies.’ According to research carried out by the Carbon Trust, an organisation that advises businesses on ways to lower their carbon emissions, more than three-quarters of UK employees now consider it important to work for an organisation that has an active policy to reduce its carbon emissions.

For Helen Garthwaite, partner and head of sustainability at Taylor Wessing, the commitments the firm has made to improving practice and reducing its carbon footprint are motivated both by ‘our own environmental conscience’ and the knowledge that sustainability is among the things the firm wishes to be known for.

‘Our sustainability policy and performance commonly feature in questions by graduates we are hoping to attract and clients are increasingly asking about their advisers’ sustainability record,’ Garthwaite explains. There is strong client interest too, she notes (Taylor Wessing advises many clients in the development industry): ‘We have been at the forefront of legal advice relating to sustainability for a number of years and feel strongly that it’s important to practise what we preach.’

That starts with thinking about the firm’s building. ‘We are an environmentally conscious tenant and are lucky to have a green building and one of the most sustainable property companies in the UK as a landlord, Land Securities, with whom we enjoy working collaboratively,’ Garthwaite says.

Her firm entered into a Sustainable Memorandum of Understanding with the landlord in March 2010 and continues to work with Land Securities and fellow tenants of the offices at London’s 5 New Street Square on environmental initiatives outlined in an Environmental Management Plan.

Lawyer and staff behaviour is an equally important part of the picture. Firms that join the LSA are advised to monitor air mileage, rail travel, taxi usage and courier mileage in reaching a firm’s overall carbon footprint – calculated in Taylor Wessing’s case using software created by Greenstone Carbon Management, which collaborated with the LSA to create an online tool to calculate and monitor progress over time.

Garthwaite recommends setting targets as part of the process, which have included a 10% reduction in emissions attributed to the firm’s London office, to be achieved during 2013. ‘We also set ourselves our own targets in 2011 as part of our corporate sustainability policy, which we’re currently working towards meeting,’ she adds. Those other targets include a drop of 5% in electricity use and a 10% reduction in its UK carbon footprint – both by 2015.

One source of independent verification of the standards met comes from the BSI (British Standards Institute). The firm’s Environmental Management System, once implemented, allowed it to be awarded the ISO 14001. Seven of the UK’s top-20 law firms have achieved this or another comparable standard.

But Garthwaite cautions: ‘We’ve made some great progress towards [our] targets, but we’re not complacent. It’s important to remember that the initial wins are easy.’ To continue to make a difference and improve on targets ‘requires commitment to effecting cultural change and creating a climate in which each individual believes that he or she can make a difference and is encouraged to do so’, she says.

Cutting carbon

The Legal Sector Alliance


The Alliance has 269 members which are committed to monitoring and reducing their carbon footprint. It has developed a carbon calculator tool suitable for law firms of all sizes in collaboration with Greenstone Carbon Management (go to www.greenstonecarbon.com). There is a portal for members, who can share experience and best practice.

The Carbon Trust


The trust comprises independent experts who advise large and medium-sized businesses and public sector bodies on reducing carbon emissions and energy use. It also measures and certifies an organisation’s carbon footprint, and focuses on measurable savings. It maintains a ‘green businesses directory’.

Use of paper

The carbon calculator tool does not yet include paper use (though it soon will). For an industry that runs on an awful lot of paper, it is an obvious add-on for firms looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

One study notes that in the US, among the manufacturing industries, paper is the fourth-largest contributor to greenhouse gases, representing, according to mainstream environment website the Daily Green, 9% of the sector’s carbon emissions.

Among smaller firms Neil Quantick, principal of Quanticks, was an early mover to the ‘paperless office’. The driver for his firm was cost rather than lowering its carbon emissions – but involved judgements that have, he says, been vindicated and which will have lowered the firm’s energy use. It was, Quantick relates, ‘in no small part borne out by what turned out to be one of the most vicious recessions of all time. We wanted to do what we do as efficiently and cost-effectively as we could’.

Passenger plane

Source: Thinkstock

The obvious savings include paper, stationery generally and, of course, archiving. ‘Those costs are now around 10-15% of what they were when we pushed paper around,’ he tells the Gazette.

With reduced reliance on secretaries, staff costs were reduced, along with the cost of office space per fee-earner, and spend on computers and software licences. ‘We already had case management and scanning capable printers,’ he notes. ‘So, the only investment we made was in a second computer screen for all users – one to read from, one to “write” on.’

What started as a cost-cutting exercise, Quantick says, became the foundation for growing the business, making expansion to multiple sites possible: ‘Having opened a second office last year, and soon to be adding a third, we have come to realise the full extent to which the paperless office provides us as a business with absolute flexibility.’

Removing paper from case management has also had benefits. ‘It’s made the monitoring and management of the firm much easier,’ he confirms. ‘We are only ever a click away from knowing exactly what is happening on every matter in the firm.’

And if a firm feels it is necessary to maintain heavy paper use, recycled paper has a significant edge over non-recycled – using, according to the Daily Green, 44% less energy, half the amount of waste water and solid waste, and 38% less greenhouse emissions.

New Gazette app

Later this month, Gazette readers will be able to choose to receive their weekly magazine digitally, with the launch of a free Gazette app for tablets. This follows the recent introduction of a new and much-improved website, further acknowledging that in today’s market solicitors want and expect to consume their news and business intelligence in different ways. A new app is expected to cut the magazine’s paper consumption significantly – 5.7 million Gazettes are printed each year. App subscribers will have the option to unsubscribe from the print edition. ‘This is a major development in the history of our 110-year-old title,’ editor in chief Paul Rogerson commented. ‘We know through initiatives such as the Legal Sector Alliance that solicitors are reducing their carbon footprint and adopting environmentally sustainable practices. It is pleasing that a new app will enable their magazine to demonstrate its green credentials too.’ Details of how to subscribe to the app will be announced shortly.

Supply chains

Just as improving the performance of a building requires negotiations with a landlord, so an important part of the picture is looking at the sustainable practices of any supplier to the firm.

As with any procurement process, a tight definition of the firm’s requirements is important. That will allow the firm to focus on five key questions to ask the supplier. The LSA suggests:

  • Ask the supplier to identify the sustainability risks associated with running its business and what it is doing to mitigate them.
  • Ask the supplier to identify the sustainability risks associated with its supply chains and what it is doing to mitigate them.
  • Ask to review the supplier’s environmental policy and request evidence to prove that it implements the policy. Policies are a good starting point, but examples of good practice not only provide evidence but also prevent wasted effort in firms and suppliers ‘reinventing wheels’.
  • Request sustainable alternatives for products and services from the supplier in your tender.
  • What other information may be gathered to demonstrate the supplier’s attitude to sustainability? Case studies demonstrating success in this respect are valuable.

That will allow the firm to move to the ‘select’ stage of procurement, when the firm should ask itself if sustainability has been given a high enough priority in its assessment of suppliers’ responses. It should then consider whether the supplier has demonstrated credibility and an awareness of sustainability – maybe through relevant accreditation or its policies. And finally ask, if the supplier were to be appointed, how would it ensure that it continued to improve its sustainability credentials?

Then, as with lawyer/staff behaviour, the relationship with the supplier needs monitoring and managing as ‘part of a process of continual improvement’.

In July the SRA’s executive director Samantha Barrass delivered a speech in Birmingham where she related the causes of financial failure in law firms. ‘These are behaviours my teams have witnessed first hand,’ she said. ‘Management weakness, such as excessive concentration of power, limited sharing of information, inadequate budgetary controls and failure to adapt to a changing market or the changing needs of employees are all examples of these.’

Though she did not make the point directly, it is interesting to note that from that list two items – the ability to share information transparently and adequate budgetary controls – would not be faults that existed in any firm that had adopted policies and practices aimed at shrinking its carbon footprint.

This leads Hudson to conclude: ‘Many of the measures firms can take to reduce their carbon footprint are also steps toward better practice management: a better grip on costs, processes and suppliers. Cutting carbon emissions also requires closer communication between firms, employees and clients. It is no coincidence that the best managed firms often also have the best approach to managing their environmental impact.’

Put like that, it is hard to imagine being too busy to think about the environment.

Energy-saving tips

A law firm’s offices are only inherently ‘green’ up to a point, and the way the office is run makes a crucial difference to its energy use, and therefore the firm’s carbon footprint. Many tips also result in cost savings, some significant, and all are suitable for introduction by firms of any size.

  • Minimise energy costs by ensuring that all equipment and lights are turned off (ie not  left on standby) when not in use.
  • Install movement sensors to meeting rooms, encourage staff to switch off light switches by labelling light switches to indicate which area of the office they light – ask security to check that all lights are switched off once the building is empty.
  • Encourage staff to switch off monitors when away from their desks for more than 5 -10 minutes and to shut computers down when they leave the office. Turning off a single computer when not in use instead of on standby can save as much as £5 every year and turning one off that would have been on screen saver mode can save up to £45 a year.
  • Reduce energy bills by turning down the heating when it is not needed and always ensure that this is done before opening a window – check that heating is not timed to come on overnight or at weekends.
  • Turning the heating down by one degree saves 8% of the energy bill a year and the Environment Agency recommends 19 degrees celsius is comfortable for most staff in the winter and 23 degrees celsius in the summer
  • If extra heating is needed, use oil-fuelled rather than electric fan heaters. They use 750w of energy as opposed to 3kw.
  • Ensure all light bulbs are energy-efficient – LEDs are more efficient than halogen.
  • Ensure air conditioning vents or heating are not blocked by office furniture/boxes.
  • Switch your electricity supplier to a green tariff. Many suppliers will assist in monitoring energy use and promoting reduction

(Source: Legal Sector Alliance)

Edurado Reyes is Gazette features editor