When we think of sustainable business, we think of manufacturing. Can we source our raw materials more ethically, and reduce waste in the packaging? We think catering or grocery retail – can we reduce food waste? We don’t think about law firms.

But any business can become more sustainable, and we will only win the war against climate change when everyone becomes involved.

A law firm is not just one legal eagle arguing before a judge. It is a whole business, with a huge backroom team of secretaries, paralegals, administrators, lawyers, and managers. A big law firm can employ over a hundred people, and the smallest could still hold half a dozen employees.

And the law generates huge volumes of paperwork. 

So perhaps we should think about law firms when we think about sustainability.

Why is ESG important to law firms?

Before we ask why ESG is important, some will ask a more basic question: what is ESG?

ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance. 

These are three criteria that are interlinked with each other, and show how a company deals with their impact on the wider world, and their community. Environmental looks at the impact of the business on the environment. This can be their resource consumption, their carbon footprint, waste policies, use of recycling, and several other factors.

Social looks at how the business interacts with its community. Is it a good neighbour? This refers to the external community, but also to the internal one. It looks at internal policies related to labour laws, diversity, and inclusion policies.

Governance relates to internal practices and policies that control the decision making of the company. Is the company fully compliant with all legal requirements? This is good governance. Or is the company leading the way and shining a light for others to follow? This is great governance.

Why is sustainability important in business?

Sustainability is the buzzword of the moment for a reason. It is very important. We are living in a world of dwindling resources, and our population is exploding. More and more people, communities and businesses are scrambling for less and less primary resources. The pie is getting smaller, but more people want their slice.

That is why sustainability is so important in business. If we continue to ignore sustainability there will eventually be nothing for business to draw upon to grow.

But sustainability is a subtle concept. You don’t need to be manufacturing goods and moving stuff to be able to be more sustainable. You could consider your power usage, your transport policy, and how much wasteful paperwork you produce, for example. For a law firm those are valid issues, and it is possible for vast improvements.

What is the difference between CSR and ESG?

It might be easy to consider ESG to be just another term for CSR. CSR, or Corporate Social Responsibility, refers to practices and policies a company might implement to have a positive impact on the world. A company is about maximising profit, but there is so much more as well, and companies with a strong sense of CSR might try to pursue social objectives, such as minimising their environmental impact, promoting volunteerism, supporting community initiatives, and donating to charities. So very similar to ESG.

But there is a subtle difference between both terms. Probably the simplest distinction is that CSR is aspirational, while ESG is outcome-orientated. CSR sets out the company’s stall on issues beyond profit. ESG is how those aspirations actually work out in the real world.

Investors are more and more focused on ESG when making decisions on where their money will go.

What is a Sustainable Legal Practice?

A sustainable legal practice might not look very different from the outside. But under the hood it is different.

A sustainable legal practice will produce less paperwork, and will leave less of that paperwork in the bin at the end of a case. The practice will ensure their office is well designed to be easy on energy requirements. Draughty windows will be replaced with double glazing for instance. The running costs in terms of energy use and transport will be kept down.

The company will see their costs come down as they introduce sustainability, meaning a more efficient, streamlined operation.

Developing a sustainability policy for your law firm

A good place to start would be to get an expert in to carry out a waste audit, and find out where your practice is falling down at the moment. A law practice produces more waste than you might imagine. Law is a very paper-work driven concern, with mountains of files being prepared and stored. Tackling this is an obvious starting point.

If the office tries to go digital it will slash the amount of waste paper being produced. Obviously some documents still need to be on paper, particularly if they carry signatures and seals. But a lot of correspondence can be done via email. A legal opinion can be delivered digitally as easily (actually, more easily and quickly) as typed.

You will analyse your energy costs and know where the energy is going. A quarter of your energy goes on lighting and heating. This can be reduced by switching off lights, and by replacing bulbs with more energy efficient ones, such as LEDs. And by closing a few windows!

You can reduce the waste you produce, and you can reuse and recycle instead of binning. A simple example is that paper can be printed on both sides.

You can incentivise your staff to reduce vehicle use – walk to the court instead of driving the short distance. And when you wine and dine clients, consider more sustainable options. These are often healthier and tastier too.

Renovate your building. Can you improve the energy rating through insulation, installing new windows, and other measures?

There are so many ways, and we would be happy to help you explore them. But be careful of Green Washing. Don’t just preach green, make sure you actually implement the changes that make you more sustainable.

Today people are not a gullible as in the past. Sweet words won’t convince your clients that you doing your bit. They will judge you by what they see. So don’t pull the wool over their eyes by Green Washing. Go the extra step and actually be Green. 

Your clients will feel better about your firm, and your costs will come down. It’s a double win.