Lots of people think about sustainability in terms of environmentalism, but it’s much more than an eco-friendly approach to business and life. Sustainability means focusing on the needs of the future while you meet the needs of the moment.
This includes 17 specific areas of focus defined by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As you can see from these goals, environmental concerns are just one small part of a bigger, future-focused plan.
People increasingly prefer to do business with firms that share their core values. In an age of heightened awareness of environmental concerns and social inequities, many conscientious clients are asking what firms are doing to promote sustainable, ethical practices.
Firms that have already implemented sustainability programs report positive results so far, and the sustainability strategies that firms have adopted are as unique and diverse as the companies that implemented them.
There are some compelling reasons to focus more on sustainability at your firm. Let’s explore the benefits, and then we’ll share some tips to help you create your own personalized program.
Top reasons to build a sustainable law practice
Sustainability is a good business decision. Yes, it benefits future generations, but it also has an immediate and tangible benefit to legal professionals currently in practice.
For the legal profession, think of sustainable development as a way to preserve the future of the field. Healthy, mindful practices will keep the legal profession independent, relevant, and trustworthy as culture and technology evolve.
Consider these benefits.
- Legacy — A sustainable practice is built to outlast its founders. By adopting healthy practices now, you can create a legacy that continues long after you retire
- Client relationships — Your sustainability program is marketable, but more importantly, it helps you understand and connect with the individuals that hire your practice
- Money — Reducing waste and improving efficiency saves your practice money. Plus, many programs include an emphasis on CLE and building new skills that serve your practice and your clients better.
- Environmental impact — Concerns about climate change and other environmental damage often feel too big to tackle. Building in positive habits helps you start with incremental change that gives you the peace of mind that you’re reducing your footprint.
- Recruiting and retaining talent — Improving diversity and equity within your firm gives you better opportunities to recruit (and keep) talented legal professionals.
You may have your own reasons for pursuing sustainability, too. It makes sense both ethically and economically.
How do you get started? While your implementation should align with your specific goals, you can use these tips to help get you moving in the right direction.
#1: Move toward a paperless office
It is no secret that law firms have historically killed a lot of trees with their excessive paper usage.
By keeping digital copies of documents, a firm can move toward a paperless office. With many courts accepting electronic filing, this is even more paper waste that can be avoided.
Not only will these practices reduce paper usage, they will also make the firm more efficient and eliminate much of the need for paper storage space.
Some argue that an excessive focus on paper documents — or digital documents that look like paper — prevents innovation and robs efficiency. Even the newspaper industry has embraced the digital world, and they have the word “paper” in their name.
As we wait for the courts and the rest of the legal system to catch up, start by keeping your files online if they don’t need to be physical.
#2: Reduce energy usage at the office
For any commercial space, lighting and climate control call for large expenditures of energy. You might have other big drains, too, like your office kitchen appliances.
Fortunately, there are many steps firms can take to reduce energy usage.
Replacing standard incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient versions, such as LED bulbs, is one simple action. Installing motion sensors that turn off lights when an office is empty can work wonders for energy savings.
Save more energy and money by only running the thermostat when people are in the office. Smart thermostats are easy and convenient, but if you can’t change out your existing controls, try simple changes like asking the last person to leave at the end of the day to turn the system off.
#3: Decrease vehicle usage
Legal professionals contribute to carbon emissions by using their own vehicles to commute to work. On top of this, litigators can spend a great deal of drive time traveling to court appearances, depositions, and other out-of-office events.
Firms can start to tackle this issue by incentivizing the use of public transportation, possibly by offering public transit passes as part of their employee benefits.
You might want to outfit your parking lot to allow charging of electric vehicles. In crowded parking areas, you might reserve the best spaces for hybrid and electric vehicles.
And with the COVID pandemic already causing a shift toward remote work, you can encourage the continuation of this trend when practical. Even the designation of one remote workday per week, such as a Friday, can pay dividends.
#4: Prioritize workplace diversity
You can prioritize diversity by promoting the hiring of people from historically disadvantaged groups.
To measure progress, try using the Mansfield Rule. This rule recommends that firms affirmatively consider at least 30% of people from disadvantaged groups for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior positions.
Disadvantaged groups include women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities.
At the same time, be mindful of pay gaps within your organization. If people from disadvantaged groups have a lower salary than other non-diverse people in similar positions, it’s time to evaluate your practices.
#5: Promote equal access to justice
Unequal access to justice is a problem that affects the entire legal industry. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted gaps in the US justice system, which prompted a Legal Aid Transparency Roundtable in September 2021.
This roundtable explored some of the opportunities to improve access to justice, both immediately and in the future. Here are some of the suggestions from the report:
- Leverage federal funding where appropriate
- Use technology to expand access to virtual services
- Seek strategic partnerships and collaborate with government agencies and private firms
The use of technology will continue to be a prominent theme as more individuals seek alternative ways to access justice.
You can also promote better access to justice with a business continuity plan. How will your firm continue to operate in case of an emergency — for example, a global pandemic? Create a contingency plan so that your firm can continue operating when things don’t go as planned.
#6: Use legal tech automation
We’ve touched on technology a couple of times in this article. Now, let’s take a closer look at automation in the legal space.
Automation can streamline processes for document creation, document management, court filing, service, and much more. In addition, automation can cut down on deliveries of physical documents, which also cuts down on energy usage and carbon emissions.
Technology never going to replace the need for human legal professionals. On the contrary, automation is meant to allow humans to do work faster, more efficiently, and with greater ease. In order to stay competitive and relevant, firms must take advantage of modern tech tools.
Here’s an extra tip: buying a new tool isn’t going to make a difference if nobody in your firm uses it correctly. Invest in continuing education and consider offering training to the people in your firm who will use your new automation tools.
#7: Reduce, reuse, recycle
Recycling programs are available in most places. Simply installing recycling bins and participating in your local programs can make a positive difference.
In addition to recycling, look for ways to reduce single-use items in your office and produce less waste. For example, if you have an office kitchen, stock it with reusable mugs, plates, cups, and utensils and provide dish soap and sponges.
When purchasing bulk items, look for things that are not individually wrapped. Packaging is a major part of the waste that offices produce.
#8: Office renovations
Sustainability does not have to be an expensive project. However, if you are looking for more impactful ways to lessen your impact, or if you’re planning on remodeling anyway, you can build with sustainability in mind.
Energy efficient windows reduce the leakage of hot or cold air. Skylights can provide more ambient light so that less electric light is needed.
Flooring and insulation can also be upgraded for energy conservation purposes. Look for sustainably sourced building materials like bamboo flooring and other natural building materials.
Especially in drought-prone areas like California, water-conscious fixtures are a wise decision, too. You may even consider a dual plumbing system that uses greywater for toilets.
#9: Choose sustainable vendors
To build a sustainable legal industry, more people and companies must make it a priority. You can help expand this movement by rewarding those who share your values.
Choose vendors that promote sustainability in their own workplaces, creating a positive cycle of focus on giving back and paying it forward.
With sustainability as the new goal of law firms large and small, these are just some of the actionable steps that can be taken toward a better world for future generations. Along with the positives for employee morale and revenue, your sustainable law firm can also enjoy the benefits of knowing it is doing its part for the greater good.