Greening Your Law Firm: A Practical Guide to Creating an Environment-Friendly Law Office

  • September 29, 2014
  • Janice Mucalov

The Process of Going Green

A Law Office Greening Program

Additional Resources

In a world where sensitivity to the environment is becoming increasingly important, many lawyers want to know how they can reduce their ecological footprint.

You probably drive to your office, work on a computer that generates piles of paper in a well-lit room, and occasionally fly to meetings and conferences. These activities release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Canada is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the world on a per capita basis, and it’s these gases that contribute in part to global warming.

The biggest problem is that law firms spew out huge amounts of paper. The average lawyer uses 20,000 to 100,000 sheets of paper a year, which at the high end amounts to half a ton. Making paper is enormously energy intensive; to produce one ton of paper – from cutting down a tree to disposal in a landfill – results in about 11 tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent gases. That’s in addition to the six tons of carbon dioxide from electricity use and three tons from commuting also generated by the typical lawyer.

Any “green” steps that lawyers take will inevitably help to minimize their impact on the environment. The following a practical guide to greening your law office – from getting partners and staff onside to easy tips and suggestions for implementing environmentally sustainable practices in your firm.

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The Process of Going Green

Taking the first step

“Going green is a process,” says Jeremy Poole, a partner with Alexander Holburn Beaudin &Lang in Vancouver, who sits on the 65-lawyer firm’s sustainability committee. “It’s not just one step and then you’re done. It’s an ongoing journey.”

But you don’t need all the answers before embarking on a green process. And you can commit to different levels – it’s okay to take baby steps at first, and then increase your environmental commitment later. What’s important is to “just get in the pool and start swimming,” says Poole.

Several Canadian law firms are already undergoing a green transformation. Alexander Holburn has a sustainability mandate and now uses 75 per cent less electricity to light its offices. Toronto’s McMillan Binch Mendelsohn buys “clean” (e.g., windmill-powered) energy. Blake, Cassels & Graydon has just approved the launch of an initiative that will result in a policy for environmental sustainability. Not to mention the numerous firms that try to reduce their paper consumption.

Understanding the benefits

Apart from the obvious environmental benefits, there are many reasons for going green which are useful to know when rallying firm support for a green initiative.

For one thing, lawyers often advise clients on environmental issues, and they need to be in step with their advice and the sustainable measures that their clients are taking. Going green is also a valuable marketing tool for attracting business and hiring young lawyers, who tend to be concerned about the environment.

A green office is also good for workplace morale. “Green buildings are thought to improve worker productivity by 16 per cent,” says James Brusslan, a partner at Chicago law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein and head of its environmental service group. But more important, he says, is the fact that people feel they’re part of a worthy cause, devoted to more than just making money for the firm.

Enlisting firm support

The firm needs to “buy in” for a green initiative to work. How successful your program is will depend heavily on the support it receives from office staff (the personnel who will be following through on many of the initiatives like paper reduction). Staff members are more likely to be onboard if the partners and decision-makers are fully supportive.

You might want to first survey the attitudes of people in your office toward making green changes. Alexander Holburn asked its lawyers and staff in a written survey if they would back a green program. Over 90 per cent responded that it would be meaningful and a benefit to work in a sustainable office.

Establishing a “green” committee

Now that everyone is onside, designate a committee (or lawyer) to research ideas and put the green program into action. The committee head should be a lawyer concerned about environmental issues and one who is well-respected within the firm. Committee members should be creative and able to suggest novel ideas.

At Levenfeld Pearlstein in Chicago, Brusslan picked an interested person from each practice group to be on its environmental task force. Both Alexander Holburn in Vancouver and San Francisco-based Farella Braun & Martel have partners, associates and support staff on their sustainability committees, so that all factions of the firm are represented.

Your committee should meet regularly to brainstorm sustainable practices, and the process should be open so everyone in the firm feels free to suggest ideas.

Conducting an environmental audit

The first task for your green committee is to conduct an environmental assessment of your office’s current greenhouse gas emissions so you establish a benchmark against which improvements can be compared.

You can do your own audit using the green checklist at the end of this article (which doubles as a list of recommendations for change), or hire a consultant to assist you. The cost for an outside consultant will run anywhere from $500 to $5,000 (the upper range applies to a 50-person law office), says Leah Stokes with Toronto-based Adapt Environmental, which has consulted to the University of Toronto’s hospital sustainability project on energy conservation and non-governmental organizations like Plan Canada.

“A greenhouse gas inventory of your office would look at the effect of your corporate flights, the amount of paper you use, your electricity and energy use, the way you commute to the office, computer servers (server rooms can be a big draw for an office), etc.” says Stokes. “The audit can go as deep as you’d like.”

To find an environmental auditor or consultant, look for those listed in trade journals with professional accreditation, such as a registered professional biologist or member of a professional engineering association, suggests Steven Clark, a senior ecologist with Hemmera (, a B.C.-based environmental consulting firm.

Whether your audit is an informal survey or a detailed ecological footprint analysis, the important thing is to get a good picture of where you are now so you’ll know where to go – and can measure your success.

Adopting a law office sustainability policy

Next, adopt a sustainability policy or mandate setting out your intent to reduce your firm’s environmental impact. For sample policies, see:

  • The ABA’s “Model Sustainability Policy
  • The “Model Law Office Sustainability Policy” developed by the Oregon Lawyers for a Sustainable Future at

Alexander Holburn has a short “sustainability mandate,” which is posted on the firm’s website and reads:

“Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang LLP is committed to being a leader in the legal community for sustainable business practices. Our goal is to lessen our impact on the environment through education and implementation of sustainable practices in the workplace, as well as in the home.”

See how Levenfeld Pearlstein is adapting and implementing the ABA model sustainability policy for law firms.

Communicating your green initiative

When you’re ready, you’ll want to officially “launch” your green initiative by communicating the plan to everyone in the office. Alexander Holburn held a lunch party, inviting a speaker from the “One Day Vancouver” sustainability program (, who spoke to the firm on what other businesses in Vancouver were also doing to go green.

Consider posting your policy in a visible place, perhaps the coffee room or by the photocopiers. Explain in your firm newsletter and on your intranet why the firm is embracing the new policy.

Ongoing communication is also important to help maintain enthusiasm. Use your newsletter or firm intranet to circulate articles on environmental awareness. Alexander Holburn e-mails its members a “sustainability tip of the week”, while its Sustainability Task Force has launched a brown-bag lunch series for members and clients to learn about sustainability issues and ways in which they can go green at home and at work.

Putting your plan into action

Be realistic about your goals—a simple program is more likely to be adopted and incorporated in existing practices. At first, you may not want numerical goals at all (e.g., reducing paper consumption by 20 per cent). Getting people to start making small changes is good enough. You’ll want to create some success to begin with, after which time you can establish specific goals and set time lines.

(The section on “A Green Law Office Program” below has specific tips for change.)

Following up

It’s important to monitor your greening program and to keep at it. New information is constantly coming to light and new products are always being developed.

“You have to continually keep on implementing changes to go green, otherwise people fall back on their old habits,” says Brusslan. For example, on Earth Day, Levenfeld Pearlstein sponsored a green real estate conference. Your office could also participate in a park cleanup.

There is likely to be some forgetfulness or resistance, Brusslan adds. People are creatures of habit. To remind employees, Levenfeld Pearlstein issues tongue-in-cheek “tickets” to people who forget to turn off their office lights at night or don’t comply with its environmental protocol.

After a year has gone by, assess the situation and report on your progress. And make sure you celebrate your success!

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A Green Law Office Program

Paper reduction and management

Given the huge paper trail associated with the practice of law, the most obvious contribution law firms can make to reduce their carbon footprint is to reduce their paper consumption.

Print, copy and generate fewer documents

Simple practices include the following:

  • Whenever possible, print double-sided
  • Review documents online rather than printing them. Or, just print the pages you need.
  • Avoid wasted pages with GreenPrint—software that prompts you before printing pages with just a few lines. (
  • Narrow the margins of documents to conserve paper (except where prohibited)
  • Circulate one copy of a memo, article or other paper document with a routing slip rather than making copies.
  • Use your e-mail signature to ask recipients “please consider not printing this e-mail.”

Move to a paperless practice and e-office

Scanning documents and processing them electronically not only cuts back on paper. It also translates into substantial savings, especially when you consider how much less physical file storage space you’ll need.

At McMillan Binch in Toronto, all closing books are scanned from one signed original, then indexed and put on CD-ROM. A 4,000-page closing book (eight binders) only takes up one small CD, and sending out a CD to multiple parties involved in a transaction instead of the actual closing books saves a tremendous amount of paper, says Richmond.

“Our law firm library is also probably the smallest in size in Toronto,” he adds. Virtually all the firm’s texts and conference binders are scanned and uploaded online.

Also explore the use of extranets and a firm intranet, which are paper-free ways to share documents. An extranet is a shared website between a particular client or file and the lawyer. An intranet is an internal website for the firm’s lawyers and staff. Other paperless practices include desktop faxing and electronic pay stubs.

At Christmas, consider sending e-holiday greetings rather than paper cards. Last year, Alexander Holbrook made its e-cards interactive. The e-cards advised that because the firm would save money as a result of not mailing out paper cards, clients could pick one of three selected charities to which the firm would donate an amount equal to the cost savings. Clients said they loved this idea.

For more information on creating a paperless law office, see

Reducing electricity and energy

Canadians are one of the world’s biggest per capita consumers of energy and electricity. We use more than twice the electricity of most Europeans. The good news is that cutting back is easy, even for a law office.

Change light bulbs

Replace traditional incandescent bulbs in pot lights, lamps and general light fixtures with compact fluorescent lamps. Alexander Holburn switched to 18 watt high-efficiency bulbs and now uses 75 per cent less electricity to light its offices.

An existing fluorescent lighting system can be upgraded by replacing any old T12 fluorescent tubes with slimmer, more energy-efficient T8 tubes – you’ll also reduce up to 40 per cent of your energy costs.

Turn lights and computers off

Instead of keeping the lights on all the time, have lawyers and staff turn office lights off when not in use and at the end of the day. Conference rooms only need to be lit when in use. And in the summer, do you really need the lights on at all? Maybe enough light streams in through the windows.

Buy and use “green” energy

Electricity generation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In provinces where power is available on the open market – Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick – you can dramatically lower your greenhouse gas emissions by buying renewable “clean” power from solar, windmill or low-impact water-source power producers.

McMillan Binch signed up with Bullfrog Power (, a 100 per cent green electricity retailer, to supply the power for its customer service floor (reception, board rooms, etc.). But you do pay a premium for green power—it costs McMillan Binch about 30 to 50 per cent more for this.

Other energy-saving tips

  • Turn down the heat in winter and air-conditioning in summer.
  • Consider a laptop computer rather than a desktop. Laptops typically use 50 per cent less energy than a desktop.
  • Educate the cleaning staff to turn off lights, coffee pots and other electrical items at night.

Find more tips for conserving energy from your local power supplier.


We all know we should generate less waste. For example, your firm could eliminate the use of disposable Styrofoam and plastic cups. Styrofoam is non-biodegradable and a proven environmental and health hazard. Stocking up instead on ceramic mugs and dishes or asking staff to bring their own coffee cup to the office may be a subtle change, but it has a powerful impact. “Every time people have to walk to their office or reach for a china cup for coffee and drink from that, it gets them thinking about the environment,” says Brusslan. “Then people start to realize there are other things they can also do.”

Recycle office paper

The American Bar Association’s “Climate Challenge” recommends recycling at least 90 per cent of your discarded mixed office paper (defined as all types of white copier and printer paper, bond and letterhead paper, note paper, colored paper, and envelopes). Place recycling bins at all workstations and in lawyers’ offices to aid in this endeavour.

Donate computers and electronics

Computer towers and monitors and other electronics are a major source of waste in landfills.

Donate your used electronic equipment to organizations that can reuse it. Alexander Holburn in Vancouver donates to B.C. Digital Divide (, a volunteer organization which provides donated electronics to needy families. Foster Pepper, a San Francisco law firm, donates its used cell phones to domestic violence centres.

Or check out provincial and municipal electronics recycling programs in your area. For example, there’s no charge to drop off old computers and electronics at more than 220 locations under Alberta’s Recycling Management Authority (

Other recycling ideas

  • Give your old law library books to book finders.
  • Recycle batteries (Alexander Holburn has a container on each floor to drop off old batteries, which are collected each month). Used rechargeable batteries and old cell phones can be recycled through the non-profit public service organization Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. See for local drop-off sites across the country.
  • Sell or donate old office furniture.

Buying “green” products

Make sure the products your firm purchases are green, meaning they are made locally (which cuts back on the pollution caused by transporting goods) or from recycled materials, or can be reused. Recycled products are often no more expensive.

In general, look for “EcoLogo” supplies—everything from office furniture to envelopes to cleaning products—certified under the Canadian government’s Environmental Choice Program ( There are currently more than 7,000 EcoLogo-certified products from hundreds of manufacturers.

For certain products like paper and office equipment, specific certification standards are usually more appropriate.

Recycled Paper

You can make a significant difference by buying certified recycled paper products with a high proportion of postconsumer content (recycled after previous consumer use). The ideal is 100 per cent recycled content. The American Bar Association recommends that printer and photocopy paper have at least 30 per cent post-consumer recycled content. Replacing one ton of non-recycled office paper with one ton that has 30 per cent recycled content avoids about 2.2 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (one ton of paper is the high end of what two lawyers typically use a year).

Another good standard for paper products is certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (, an international non-profit organization which supports environmentally appropriate management of forests. FSC-certified paper contains FSC-certified wood fibre from well-managed forests and/or verifiable postconsumer recycled content.

Chlorine-free paper certified by the international Chlorine Free Products Association is another alternative (

Or consider “tree-free” paper. San Francisco-based Foster Pepper uses earth-friendly paper made from recycled cotton for all its letterhead and business cards.

Office Equipment

When buying photocopiers, fax machines and printers, make sure they have the “Energy Star” label, which identifies the most energy-efficient products on the market. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) can also help to evaluate and select computers and monitors based on their environmental attributes (

For computers, you can specify an “80 PLUS” computer power supply, which means they are at least 80 per cent energy efficient (


Consider buying organic or “fair trade” coffee for the office from suppliers like Guelph-based Planet Bean ( or Van Houtte ( Fair trade coffee comes directly from co-ops or small coffee farmers at a price that reflects a living wage and under sustainable trading conditions.

Salt Spring coffee from B.C.’s Salt Spring Island ( is also “carbon neutral.” The coffee company buys renewable energy offsets from Carbon to offset emissions from its roasting operations (see below for more on carbon offsets).

Other purchasing suggestions

  • Avoid buying products with excessive or non-recycled packaging.
  • Deal with suppliers who are also committed to environmental sustainability, e.g., pick a courier that uses hybrid vehicles or bicycles.
  • Hire caterers who offer local, organic or fair-trade items.
  • Buy gifts and promotional items for clients and staff from local businesses.
  • For disposable containers, steer clear of Styrofoam and source out non-toxic biodegradable products (made from sugar cane fibre and corn starch) from suppliers like Toronto-based Green Shift ( and Bhumi Products (

Minimizing your travel impact

Air travel pumps huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; plane emissions are considered three times as potent as auto emissions. Try to eliminate unnecessary business-related flying as much as possible. Invest in web and videoconferencing tools to replicate personal contact with clients and others.

If you must travel on business, stay at hotels known for their environmental efforts. And rent a hybrid car instead of a gas-guzzler.

Bus or bike to work

Encourage the use of public transit by providing free or discounted bus passes to lawyers and staff. In Vancouver, firms can offer discounted annual passes when 25 or more employees are enrolled in the Translink Pass Program (

Also make sure a bike rack, lockers and showers are available for employees who commute to work by bicycle.


Not having to go into the office at all is even better than commuting by car or bus. Allowing lawyers and staff to work from home is good for the environment (as well as for worker productivity and morale).

Building improvements

Buildings are a large source of greenhouse gas emissions; in Canada, they account for about 35 per cent of GHGs. You have an opportunity to help reduce that if you are planning to move into a new office building, constructing your own law office or renovating your existing space.

New construction

Green construction reduces GHG emissions by as much as 35 per cent. If you’re moving into new office space, look for a LEED-certified building. Administered by the non-profit Canada Green Building Council (, the LEED Green Building Rating System implements standards in five main categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. There are four levels of green certification: certified, silver, gold and platinum.

If you’re constructing your own building, you should find green features cost effective – they usually add only one 1 to 2 per cent to the initial cost, typically recovered within 12 to 20 months.

McInnes Cooper’s new Halifax offices are in a building cooled by seawater from Halifax Harbour. The offices were also designed to allow more natural light, and motion-sensing lights replaced the original light fixtures.

Nixon Peabody’s new environment-friendly law office in San Francisco features wood floors made from post-agricultural recycled local wood and countertops recycled from plastic bottles and glass chips. More than 75 per cent of the demolition and construction byproduct waste from the building process was recycled, and most of the furniture was re-used from the previous office.

Improving an existing office

In your current space, some improvements might be possible. For example, you could replace the existing light fixtures with motion-detecting lights.

If you’re renovating, consider green upgrades. When installing new carpeting recently, Alexander Holburn selected a “carbon neutral” carpet from Interface (, which uses earth-friendly carpet manufacturing techniques and neutralizes remaining carbon dioxide emissions by buying carbon credits from wind energy, reforestation and similar projects.

As a tenant in an existing commercial building, you can encourage the owner to obtain “Go Green” improvements and certification from the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada

Offsetting your carbon emissions

Even with all your best efforts, it’s impossible to reduce your carbon emissions to zero. But you can offset your residual carbon footprint by buying “carbon offsets.” Carbon offset are credits you get for investing in energy efficiency projects (e.g., energy efficient woodstoves in Cambodia and Uganda), wind farms, solar installations, reforestation programs and the like, which you subtract from your remaining emissions to reduce your net climate impact.

Some offset projects are considered better than others, so a little research will help you to choose wisely. Tree planting, for example, although popular, is controversial (it doesn’t address our dependence on fossil fuels). A good way to go is to look for “Gold Standard” projects or those that favour small scale, community-level projects both in Canada and oversees.

Toronto-based Carbon Zero is currently funding renewable energy development in southern Alberta ( Carbon Friendly Solutions is a B.C. company involved in reforesting degraded and vacant over-farmed land in Poland. Canadian organizations offering carbon offsets include Offsetters ( and Zerofootprint ( Climate Care is a respected U.K.-based organization that also offers carbon offsets (

Arnold & Porter, a Washington, D.C. law firm, offsets the amount of miles its employees fly by buying carbon offsets from ( The Chicago law firm of Levenfeld Pearlstein signed up at the Chicago Climate Exchange, North America’s only voluntary but legally binding greenhouse gas emissions trading system, with offset projects worldwide ( “carbon neutral” was the first step this 75-lawyer firm took to go “green.”

Other ways to go “green”

  • Don’t buy bottled water for drinking (you’ll save on plastic and the carbon required to transport bottled water). Install a tap filter instead if necessary. In conference rooms, provide pitchers with tap water.
  • Support green initiatives. The Victoria law firm of Horne Coupar joined the non-profit organization “1% for the Planet” (, where members donate 1 per cent of their sales or revenue to a network of environmental organizations worldwide.
  • Follow the lead of Levenfeld Pearlstein and screen the documentary An Inconvenient Truth for lawyers and staff.
  • Encourage real estate clients to employ green building techniques.
  • Invest in a company-owned electric car for business-related errands (like San Francisco law firm Graham & Dunn).
  • Offer cash incentives to employees who buy hybrid or high-efficiency vehicles (e.g., Smart Car). The US law firm of DLA Piper offers $2,000 to employees (excluding partners) who buy hybrid cars and $1,500 to those who lease them.
  • Sponsor a firm-wide competition to reduce energy use.
  • Participate in environmental awareness programs. To celebrate Clean Air Day (which in 2008 is June 4), participate in the annual Commuter Challenge and encourage everyone in the office to walk, cycle, carpool or take the bus to work that day (

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Additional Resources

Oregon Lawyers for a Sustainable Future
Find checklists for sustainable law office operations, from lunchroom practices to green events, and more under this group’s Law Office Sustainability Tools.

David Suzuki Foundation
A wealth of good information here from the scientific and educational foundation headed by the noted environmentalist.

Environment Canada
Find a “green office toolkit” and other materials on what steps can be taken at the office to conserve energy, reduce waste and lessen harmful pollutants in the environment.

“Going Green”
The Vancouver Sun newspaper’s ongoing series of articles on “going green.” Numerous informative articles and advice.

Pembina Institute
Several publications from this citizen-led action group dedicated to improving environmental standards. In B.C., its Carbon Neutral Workgroup program for small and medium-sized businesses includes workshops in which businesses measure their carbon footprint with easy-to-use software, identify and implement opportunities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and learn about offset opportunities for carbon neutral products and services.

Natural Resources Canada
Environmental tips and information from this government website dedicated to the development of Canada’s natural resources.