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Firms Taking Steps to Reduce Environmental Footprints


September 10, 2007

Read Time

15 minutes


By Maria Kantzavelos

In the midst of a surging environmental movement — highlighted by the popularity of former Vice President Al Gore's documentary on global warming — law firms in Chicago and around the country are jumping on the "green" bandwagon. Some firms are creating internal task forces to look at ways to reduce the size of their "carbon footprint" and others have already begun working under energy-efficient lights. Yet another firm offers cash incentives for employees to purchase hybrid cars, and still others plan to move into new buildings designed and constructed with the goal of acquiring environmental seals of approval.

James D. Brusslan is an environmental lawyer at Levenfeld Pearlstein, where he heads a newly created task force charged with developing greener office protocols for the 75-lawyer firm. Levenfeld recently joined the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary, multinational marketplace for the reduction and trading of greenhouse gas emissions.

"If law firms start listening to their clients, they will understand that everybody is focusing on this. Why should law firms be any different?" Brusslan said. "They don't manufacture products like their clients do, but there are opportunities to try to get their employees to be thinking about what they can do. If everybody is thinking about this, there's going to be a huge change."

While law firms are joining many companies in expanding existing recycling programs, purchasing office products that are more environmentally sound, and searching for more ways to "go green," many of them are finding that the environmentally friendly steps not only help save the planet, but they can also be good for business, said Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwest public interest environmental advocacy organization.

"Law firms these days are major businesses. There's a trend across Illinois and U.S. businesses to recognize the public desire to become cleaner and greener," Learner said. "Like other businesses, law firms are finding out that taking steps that are good for the environment can also be good for the bottom line."

For example, Learner said, using more energy-efficient office equipment and lighting can save money on electricity bills and reduce pollution. Recycling waste paper and setting office machines to print and copy documents on both sides of a sheet of paper helps the environment and reduces supply costs and waste disposal costs.

"Good environmental practices are often good business practices as well," Learner said. Footprints at work Granted, law firms don't manufacture products, directly emitting potential pollutants into the atmosphere. But they do house lots of lawyers, who commute to offices, where they work on computers in rooms lit by electricity, and who frequently travel to meetings in cars and airplanes — all activities that produce greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

"There's no way for a firm to put itself in a situation where it doesn't have a carbon footprint," said Allen (Sandy) Williams, a partner who chairs the Energy Industry Team at Foley & Lardner, which is also a member of the Chicago Climate Exchange. "In the world of green, even people in the service business have greenhouse gas emissions attributable to them."

Then there's the seemingly endless amount of paperwork associated with the practice of law.

"We lawyers — as you can imagine — kill a lot of trees," said David T. Brown, a partner who chairs the management committee at Chicago-based Much Shelist Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein, which is in the process of implementing a series of green business initiatives.

One law firm in Washington, D.C. — Arnold & Porter — set out earlier this year to find out just how much paper lawyers consume. The firm's informal survey of a handful of law firms ranging in size from small to large in several areas of the country served as research in the launching of a law office sustainability effort sponsored by the American Bar Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The survey found that annual paper use per attorney ranges from about 20,000 to about 100,000 sheets.

"At either end of the range, it's a lot," said Howard J. Hoffman, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental lawyer and one of the organizers of the ABA-EPA Climate Challenge. The effort was unveiled in March as a pilot project asking law offices to sign on to one or more of three voluntary EPA programs aimed at reducing the impact of their business operations on the environment.

"Producing paper is very energy-intensive," Hoffman said. "It requires cutting down a tree, chopping the tree into bits of wood, turning the wood into pulp, turning that into paper, transporting the paper."

The web site of the ABA-EPA Climate Challenge notes how paper use leaves a large ecological footprint:

"The life-cycle of one ton of office paper, from production to disposal in a landfill, results in the release of about 11 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent gases, which contribute to global climate change; as well as other air and water pollutants."

Shades of green From the Chicago office of DLA Piper on a July afternoon, managing partner Louis S. Cohen described a subtle piece of evidence of how the global law firm is going green.

"I'm sitting here in what some consider to be the dark," Cohen said in a telephone interview. "At least on relatively bright days, we encourage people to limit their energy consumption."

Along with lights off in some offices where attorneys are at work, employees might notice a modest change in air temperature settings at the Chicago office, Cohen said. Also, the office has switched to recyclable paper products, and e-mail messages sent from the firm come with the trailer, "Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail."

Amara Calvo, a conflicts assistant at DLA Piper, said she had been taking her empty soda cans and bottles home from work to be recycled, until earlier this year.

"Now, we can recycle everything," Calvo said. "The styrofoam was just killing me. In our coffee rooms, they restocked everything. Even our napkins now are recycled napkins."

The changes in the Chicago office reflect a DLA Piper initiative rolled out in January in all of the firm's 64 offices throughout the world in an effort to become more environmentally friendly.

With more than 3,400 lawyers, plus thousands of other employees, working out of DLA Piper offices worldwide, the global sustainability initiative was designed to reduce the impact of the firm's operations on the environment in four areas: energy, waste, business travel, and procurement of supplies — "everything from packaging material to the kind of rugs we're putting in our new facilities" — said Kelly Tubman Hardy, a Baltimore-based partner who coordinated the effort in the U.S.

"We are seeing a much greater focus in the media, in the business community in general, on sustainability and our environmental impact and responsibility to later generations," Hardy said. "In general, our clients are more interested in this and people are more focused on this than they were three or four years ago."

Hardy said the massive effort grew out of an interest from firm employees who were involved in the planning of a conference on climate change called "Cooling the Planet," which was presented in February in Sheffield, England, and featured Gore and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (D-Me.), chairman of the global board of DLA Piper.

"We were hearing from lots of our partners and lawyers and staff, `What is DLA Piper going to do?"' Hardy said. Rolling out incentives As part of DLA Piper's global initiative, which includes installing more energy-efficient lights and machines in offices, and encouraging more recycling and duplex printing and copying of documents, the firm is offering $2,000 to employees — excluding partners — who purchase hybrid cars, and $1,500 to those who lease them.

Calvo, the conflicts assistant, is among about 25 firm employees who, so far, have taken advantage of the new benefit. She recently replaced her 1996 Toyota Camry — which she had been "running into the ground" — with a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid.

"I had just gone to the mechanic and he said I had to put a couple thousand dollars into it. I thought it wasn't worth putting the money into it when I could put the money into a car that was going to be environmentally correct," Calvo said. "I was kind of waiting, but when I heard about this benefit I thought, `This is huge — I have to take advantage of it."'

The firm has pledged to offer cash incentives to employees who sustain a more environmentally conscious way of getting to and from work, such as bicycling, carpooling, or using public transportation.

The initiative also calls for the elimination of unnecessary business-related travel, and for the purchase of carbon offsets for certain unavoidable travel.

Cohen pointed out that the characteristic "herd mentality" of law firms, in the case of environmental sustainability efforts, could bring far-reaching results.

"As firms are perceived as being socially responsible, and there's a buzz or information or some press, then others will follow suit. The more people know about what one firm is doing, the more people will ask whether other firms have acted," Cohen said. "Law firms have sort of a herd mentality. If we can be part of the group at the head of the pack and others follow suit, then I think we are all far better off."

At Much Shelist, the firm's leaders are exploring the idea of offering incentives to encourage the use of public transportation and the purchase of hybrid cars by employees, said Brown, the chair of the firm's management committee. The firm is also working to develop greener office policies, he said, such as using more energy-efficient lighting and environmentally friendly equipment, technology, and supplies; expanding recycling and waste management programs; and greener travel planning.

Similar moves are in motion at Levenfeld Pearlstein, which recently distributed compact fluorescent light bulbs to its employees as part of an effort to promote greener practices beyond the workplace.

The firm is looking to implement a formal series of steps that can help reduce its impact on the environment, including switching default settings of copiers to double-sided for internal documents, using at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled paper, installing occupancy light sensors in conference rooms and other areas, and encouraging attorneys to review documents on-line rather than printing them out.

In addition, the firm's environmental task force is considering a firm-wide competition to reduce energy use, and issuing "tickets" to employees who don't comply with environmental protocol, such as turning off computers and lights when they leave their offices and conference rooms. The task force also hopes to encourage employees to calculate their individual carbon footprint ( and take steps to reduce it.

"We're just looking at every aspect we can to go green," Brusslan said. "Something has happened in the last year or two and this is how corporations are going to do business — they already are. Law firms are a little late."

At Much Shelist, said Brown, the initiatives are a matter of practicing what the firm's lawyers preach to clients.

"Professionally as lawyers, we're trying to teach the [real estate] trade how to build and develop green. The first starting point is to begin at home," he said. Building blocks When Sidley Austin relocated to a custom-built, 40-story office tower at One South Dearborn St. in 2005, the firm made its new home in a soaring metal and glass structure that was completed with a seal of approval from the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit organization that promotes environmentally responsible buildings with its nationally recognized LEED rating system.

LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — uses a rating system to measure a structure's environmental sustainability. Achieving LEED certification for buildings has become more important to developers and anchor tenants of commercial office buildings in Chicago.

"It's one of these buzzwords in the marketplace that as tenant brokers and tenants themselves get more educated, it's becoming more and more commonplace that you're going to have a building and it's going to be LEED-certified," said Brad Soderwall, project manager in Chicago for Houston-based developer Hines Interests, which built the office tower at Dearborn and Madison streets. "From what we've seen from an anchor tenant — they're really the driving force behind a new building — the chances are great that a tenant is going to request it and demand it in a new project."

Sidley's new building achieved a silver rating — the third highest of four ratings the organization gives to commercial structures — for the building's green features, such as ultraviolet lights in the HVAC system to improve indoor air quality; energy-efficient, floor-to-ceiling windows that maximize natural light into the building; mature, sugar maple trees planted in the plaza to help minimize storm-water runoff; and an enclosed bicycle facility to encourage alternative means of transportation.

The new home of Lord Bissell & Brook, a 51-story structure built by John Buck Co. at 111 S. Wacker Dr., won a gold rating — the organization's second-highest rating.

Attaining the organization's highest rating — platinum — is a far greater challenge for commercial developers.

"It would really take some cutting-edge things to get to a platinum rating for an office building," Soderwall said. "Waterless urinals, solar panels, windmills to generate power — those are the kind of things that are cutting-edge stuff that, right now, you'd pay a real sizable premium for in order to put those things in that would have a very long payback."

For Jenner & Block, which is planning a move to a 45-story office tower under construction at 353 N. Clark St., making a new home in a structure that is deemed green is, "very important," said Donald I. Resnick, head of the firm's real estate department.

In talks with developers and architects involved in the building project, "our partners from day one have been very interested in making sure we're LEED-certified and being as green as possible," Resnick said.

The developer, Mesirow Financial Real Estate Inc., is seeking a rating for the structure's core and shell, while the law firm is working with Goettsch Partners to achieve some level of certification for its interior office space, said Jim Prendergast, a partner in the architectural firm.

Features that could earn the firm a high rating for its interior design might include the use of recycled content in furniture and carpeting, energy-efficient appliances, and "daylight harvesting" fixtures that adjust lighting to compensate for the amount of daylight coming into a room, along with the installation of specialized air-filtration systems for indoor pollutants. Other elements might include the use of construction materials that are fabricated locally, rather than causing more energy to be burned by importing material from around the world.

"We want to use less energy occupying the space, use less energy building the space, and improve the overall indoor environmental quality," Prendergast said. "The bottom line to all of this is a healthier, more productive, more socially conscious environment."

Soderwall said Kirkland & Ellis is encouraging Hines to go for a gold rating for a 60-story office tower it is building along the north bank of the Chicago River, at 300 N. LaSalle St., where the firm plans to move in 2009.

Developers plan to make use of the site's proximity to the Chicago River by pumping river water into a basement-level cooling plant to pull heat out of the building, instead of using a conventional rooftop cooling tower that tends to waste significant amounts of water through evaporation, Soderwall said. Plans also call for a green roof, landscaped with plants to minimize storm-water runoff and heat gain into the building.

Green features to new buildings may add to upfront construction costs, but they can produce a savings in the long-run, Soderwall said.

"Buildings that are achieving LEED certification are operating more efficiently. They save more energy, which goes to the tenant's bottom line because it results in lower operating costs," Soderwall said.

And features that can result in cleaner indoor air can have a direct impact on personnel.

"Clean air equals happier, healthier, more productive employees," Soderwall said. "A large portion of an employer's cost is people. A building that has cleaner air is going to minimize the chances that people are getting sick from airborne illness or whatever it may be."

For Kirkland & Ellis, which is also seeking some level of LEED certification for the new building's interior design, taking a stand on the green details of its new building is "the right thing to do," said senior corporate partner Kevin Evanich.

But there are other perks, he added.

"We also believe there's economic benefit in it. It will be important to sophisticated clients that we've acted in a certain manner, and particularly important to law students and young lawyers," Evanich said.

"Environmental consciousness is very important to this coming generation. We've heard that many times on campuses. Being able to demonstrate to them that we've stepped out on the issue on our own will help us in recruiting the best and the brightest."

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