The Green Law Firm

By W. David Bridgers

So, you have watched An Inconvenient Truth, or perhaps Kilowatt Ours, Nashville filmmaker Jeff Barrie's documentary about the domestic energy business and practical things we can do to save energy, and you want to go green. Or, perhaps you are not yet convinced that we are contributing to global warming, but you do like controlling costs. Or perhaps you can see into the not-so-distant future and realize that clients will become increasingly concerned about your firm's environmental ethos. Indeed, one need only run a web search for "green law firm" to discover than many law firms, mostly on [the] west coast, have already made their green commitment a key component of their marketing efforts.

Regardless of the reason, it is becoming clear that "going green," in its many different manifestations, increasingly makes sense for business, and law firms are no exception. While law firms do not operate industrial machinery and law firms are not traditionally considered resource-intensive businesses, there are many easy steps law firms can take to reduce their "carbon footprint," many of which can save you money. In order to get you started, here is a discussion of some of the opportunities to go green we discovered simply by walking around our offices, a mid-sized law firm located in a glass tower highrise.

1. Office Paper

Law firms use lots of paper. If your firm is like ours, you are using much more paper than you need. Our business is a collaborative one, and part of that collaboration is sharing copies of documents with our colleagues. But let's be honest – most of us routinely receive documents with "FYI" or a similar notation scrawled across the top that we quickly review as we move the document from the inbox on our desk to the trashcan. Unfortunately, we do not simply receive such documents; we also generate them for our colleagues. While some law firms have gone "paperless," a laudable goal if you have the time and commitment, we can significantly reduce our consumption if we just adopt a few common sense guidelines. Over the past 25 years, we have all become familiar with the mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." When it comes to office paper, and other resources, it is still the guide for going green. Here is how it plays out with respect to paper in our office.

Reduce

We discovered opportunities for reducing the amount of paper we use:

1) Like many law firms, we do not receive paper faxes. Instead, incoming faxes are converted into a .pdf document and sent via e-mail to the recipient's desktop. Unfortunately, some of our colleagues have all their faxes printed off without reviewing them to see if a hard copy is actually needed. We will all save a tremendous amount of paper if we will print only those faxes for which we need a hard copy at that moment. Some faxes can be deleted after being read on the screen. Many others can be stored electronically, either in the client's electronic folder or in a subfolder of your e-mail inbox. If you still are using paper faxes, consider converting to an electronic system.

2) Some firms utilize software that permits them to fax documents directly from a desktop without the need to create a paper copy. If you have this technology, utilize it. If you do not, restrict faxes to those documents that you cannot attach to an e-mail. Those of us who do electronic filing in the federal courts know that we have software that converts our word processing documents into .pdf documents, eliminating the need to scan a hard copy. If you have that technology, please make sure you use it.

3) Communicate electronically when possible. This applies to both internal and external communications. Scan and e-mail letters, pleadings and internal communications. If the recipient simply needs to review the document and then discard it, they can quickly review the document on their screen and delete the e-mail. If the recipient may need to review the document at a later date, they can save the e-mail in a subfolder of their inbox until they need it. If your computers are networked, when communicating internally don't send an electronic copy of the document to all recipients. Instead, save an electronic version of the document in the client folder on the network and send an FYI e-mail to those who need to know about the document, letting them know what it is and where it can be found.

4) When multiple people are editing a document, print only one copy and circulate it among those who need to review or edit. Not only does this save paper, it can also save time by eliminating the need to harmonize edits of multiple editors.

5) Where possible, use two-sided copying.

Reuse

Lawyers like drafts. Some lawyers like lots of drafts. At our house, we use the reverse side of paper in our printer when possible. Although privilege and confidentiality issues place limits on reuse of some papers, there is no reason why law firms cannot do the same when printing drafts and other internal communications.

Recycle

Even if we all take steps to reduce the amount of paper we use, and reuse paper when possible, we still will generate substantial amounts of paper waste. Although we are late to the game, we are in the process of implementing a comprehensive recycling program through a local vendor. There are many recycling vendors in the area, and they offer different mixes of services, depending on your needs. For those of you who may have looked at a service in years past and were scared off by requirements for large bins or other similar problems, please look again. The services have become more user-friendly, and they are quite economical.

Recyling only works if we "close the loop" by purchasing recycled paper. Most office supply companies and printers offer a wide array of recycled papers. If you really want to close the loop, however, you cannot simply rely on assurances that the paper you are purchasing is made from recycled paper. Instead, you need to make sure that the paper you are purchasing is made from "post-consumer fiber," meaning it is made from paper that customers actually recycled. The United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website, located at www.epa.gov, has a series of helpful guidance documents on understanding and purchasing recycled office paper and other office supplies. If you really want to go green on your office paper, look for 100% post-consumer fiber recycled paper or, alternatively, paper that is made from post-consumer fiber and "FSC Certified Fibers." FSC Certified Fibers are fibers that come from fiber suppliers who have meet the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization that supports environmentally appropriate management of the world's forests. Finally, it now is possible to purchase office paper that has been processed without the use of chlorine, which is designed "PCF" or certified processed chlorine free.

2. Disposable Kitchen Products

Like most law firms, we have disposable cups, plates and utensils available for use when needed. Like most law firms, we also have coffee mugs, glasses, stoneware, and flatware available for use. Unfortunately, too many people use disposables on a daily basis, largely out of habit. Breaking people of that habit can help reduce significantly the amount of trash we generate and conserve the energy used to produce the disposables. To that end, we will be encouraging our folks to use real coffee cups and plates when they are in the office.

3. Office Equipment

For many years, the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy have jointly run the "Energy Star" program, a voluntary labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program has its own website, which can be found at www.energystar.gov. Energy Star develops energy efficiency standards that products in a broad range of categories must meet in order to be labeled with the Energy Star logo, including office equipment. Most office equipment from major manufacturers and suppliers carries the Energy Star label. To reduce energy consumption and lower energy costs to your firm, makes sure that all new office equipment you purchase carries the Energy Star label.

4. Lights

Many of us have been using compact fluorescent bulbs in our homes for several years. While many office buildings have begun transitioning from the use of incandescenet light bulbs to compact fluorescents, far too many offices have failed to do so. There are a number of online energy savings calculators that will tell you how much energy you save by converting to compact fluorescents, and the numbers are staggering. We will make sure that our office completes the transition, and so should you.

These are just a few of the simple ways to go green we discovered by walking around our office. Many of you probably are already doing more. If you are, please share your successes with the rest of us. If you have not addressed these issues, please consider doing so.

Reprinted, with permission, from the April 2008 issue of the Nashville Bar Journal, a monthly publication of the Nashville (TN) Bar Association.