When my firm began its journey to become a "green" law firm in 2003, the question that we received most was, "What is a green law firm?" In fact, people asked the question
so much that we actually ran an advertisement that addressed the question. In
the ad, we reframed the question from "what" to "why." Why would you do that? For us, it was simple: We wanted to do well while doing good. Making a profit did not have to come at the expense of either people or the planet. We were focused on the triple-bottom line of people, planet and profit.
Now, a decade later, the questioners have caught on. They are no longer asking "what," but they still insist on knowing "why" (and often, "how"). The inherent focus of the question, though, still seems to be on profit and, specifically, whether
there is a return on investment for sustainability in a law practice. So how can the greening of a law firm impact or increase business?
In September 2010, attorney William Blackburn penned an article for Law Practice Today, the monthly online magazine of the American Bar Association’s law practice management section. Blackburn interviewed various attorneys from different law firms. The conclusion of his inquiry as to "why" was that values-driven firms survive tough economic times and prosper in the long term because of their core focus on their values. This conclusion is not a radical concept in the business world. Many firms tout their values as a selling point in their marketing materials. In doing so, firms recognize what is an essential truth about the business of law: Client engagements are driven by relationships. If your clients understand your values, if they see that you share their values, most likely they will be your client for the long term.
Still skeptical? Well, then perhaps we should examine some key metrics that law firms like to measure. While not all firms will be the same, here are some specific benefits that many will realize.
Reduced Operating Costs
Conservation, including recycling, energy efficiency, reduction of resource consumption (paper) and minimization of facility requirements (file storage) and waste output (trash) all boost the bottom line. Obviously, how much an individual law firm could save depends on its particular energy footprint, its current state of energy efficiency and the investment that it makes to improving efficiency. Still, such savings add up.
Increased Revenue Generation
The Hildebrandt Institute’s Peer Monitor Economic Index, as reported in November 2012, tracked continuing weakness in demand for legal services in nearly all practice areas. The report suggested that firms need to develop effective strategies for generating top-line growth while ensuring that costs are in keeping with anticipated revenues. A dismal outlook, for sure.
Yet, while not a panacea for the weakened demand for legal services, focusing on companies that focus on sustainable business opportunities can potentially translate into new originations for the legal industry. Some bright spots to note:
• Clean-energy patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office continue to rise. Firms with robust patent practices could certainly experience an uptick in their revenues as a result.
• The revision of the General Services Administration’s green leasing guidelines and President Obama’s $4 billion Better Buildings Initiative suggest potential growth in green office space. Firms with significant leasing practices should be uniquely positioned to respond to this anticipated demand.
• Plummeting materials costs have seen an increase in large-scale solar PV projects. GreenBiz reports that in California alone there are more than 10 gigawatts of planned solar PV projects — a significant increase over the 0.3 gigawatts of currently operating projects. Firms with energy practices — traditional or renewable-focused — can provide the necessary legal support that such projects require.
• The $29 billion organic industry, which includes both food and nonfood items, is small in terms of overall gross domestic product, but it continues to grow. According to a study published by the Organic Trade Association in 2011, 78 percent of U.S. families say they purchase some form of organic food. This finding comes on the heels of another report by the OTA that the U.S. organic industry grew by nearly 8 percent in 2010. Increased industry growth and consumer demand are good indicators that the businesses in the organic sector are requiring (or soon will be) legal assistance for matters such as drafting distribution agreements, trademark applications and counseling regarding labeling requirements.
Undeniably, law firms that focus on the sustainable business marketplace will be uniquely positioned to see current and potential business opportunities. For example, in 2010, our firm partnered with two other Bay Area law firms to draft AB 361. This bill was eventually adopted in 2011 and established beneficial corporations as recognized corporate entities within California. Dozens of sustainable businesses sought out the assistance of all three firms to "convert" them to beneficial corporations under the new law, many of which became new clients of the firm. To the say the least, our investment in drafting legislation to help foster sustainable business growth has been well rewarded.
Increased Attorney Engagement
Confucius said it, and he was right: Choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life. Unfortunately, attorneys are all too familiar with the stories of friends and former colleagues who have left the practice of law because of the stress and demands of the business of law.
While focusing on sustainability will certainly not cure the legal industry of all of its current financial ills, it can boost morale (and as stated above, curb costs). A report by the Society for Human Resource Management, in conjunction with BSR and Aurosoorya, suggests that focusing on sustainability may improve employee morale and strengthen firm culture, create more efficient business processes and result in a stronger public image.
Moving beyond reports, though, who does not want to be inspired at work? The passion within the sustainable business industry is contagious. We are routinely sought out by other firms and attorneys who want to know how we grew our practice and, in some cases, about how they
can be a part of our team. Internally, attorneys from the real estate and business groups of our firm have become focus
area experts on such things as green leasing and green building. They have brought with them the significant experience from "traditional" areas of law to effectively service the demands of green entrepreneurs. The result has been the organic growth of an interdisciplinary group of attorneys within the firm whose practices may
have otherwise remained distinct and separate, which allows us to become more familiar with each other’s practices and look for ways to collaborate with each other and cross-market the full-service capabilities of our firm — a desirable result for any firm.
This article first appeared in The Recorder, a Legal affiliate based in San Francisco. •
Bill Acevedo is a partner in the litigation group at Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean in Oakland, Calif. He leads the firm’s green business practice group. He can be reached at email@example.com or 510-834-6600.