We’ve come up with a list of five steps a law firm should take to address their carbon footprint. We’ve listed them below, along with hypothetical numbers for a law firm sitting in the middle of 2019’s Global 200 by revenue.
|Reduction or Offset
(metric tonnes CO2/year)
|Hub-and-spoke office model
|Upgrading IT infrastructure
|Reducing paper usage
We are writing this article not just to provide a blueprint for law firms to reduce their carbon emissions, but also to show the low cost of carbon offsetting. The cost for our hypothetical law firm to purchase carbon offsets would be approximately 0.12% of annual revenue, which equals $814,800 for our hypothetical law firm. Given the multi-year timeline for steps like implementing a hub-and-spoke office model, the sensible strategy for law firms is to implement a carbon emissions reduction plan reviewed annually, and purchase carbon offsets for what you can’t offset. PartnerVine has done that with Climate Neutral, and it was much easier and less expensive than we expected.
In this article, we describe each step, the estimated carbon emissions reduction for our hypothetical law firm and the methodology for calculating the numbers.
Cutting down on office footprint is the biggest action to mitigate climate change a law firm can make. If employee commutes are properly heat-mapped, the hub-and-spoke office model cuts down on travel, comes hand in hand with switching to cloud technology, supports the move to a paperless office, and results in substantial financial savings by reducing office space in expensive locations.
The original hub-and-spoke office model included prestigious but smaller headquarters in legacy locations, emphasising collaborative work, with communal meeting spaces prioritised over individual offices, and a complement of smaller offices on more flexible leases closer to where employees (or clients) are located. As a result of COVID-19, working-from-home has become more acceptable, and companies have realised that they can scale back much more quickly than previously thought possible, as the majority of employees have had to come to terms with tele-conferencing, tele-commuting, and using digital documents and signatures in response to the lockdown. This means that rather than 45% reductions, we are seeing up to 80% reductions being planned for from firms like Linklaters, Deloitte, KPMG, PWC, Clifford Chance and Slater & Gordon. Given the relative lack of data, we’ve gone with conservative estimates from pre-pandemic times for the reduction in office space, assuming a 45% reduction in office space as a starting point. For our hypothetical law firm, the difference in CO2 lines up as follows:
(metric tonnes of CO2/year
Upgrading IT Infrastructure
Upgrading to Fibre-to-Premises
For those law firms that have access, upgrading to direct to building fibre broadband, (i.e., when the fibre optic cables connect directly to the premises, rather than copper cabling connecting through a cabinet to the street’s fibre optic cables), is a powerful weapon in a law firm’s fight against climate change. Since Fibre optic cables transmit signals with light, rather than electricity, the consensus is that they use 12x less energy to deliver data, and the non-metallic wiring requires no cooling; meaning it doesn’t have to be electrified and requires far less maintenance. In addition, slow speeds reduce productivity. It is estimated that slow internet speeds cost employees one week of work every year.
For our hypothetical law firm, savings from switching to Fibre-to Premises from traditional cabling equal 5,027 metric tonnes of CO2 per year.
Switching to a Green Cloud server
Another advantage of Fibre is that it allows for more secure transitions to cloud computing. The Carbon Disclosure Project found that, with such transitions, large companies in the UK and France could achieve 50% emissions reduction on a fairly short time frame, delivering annual energy savings of £1.2 billion in the UK alone. So who is a “green” cloud provider? Apple now runs all of its data centres on renewables that it either owns or purchases in local markets. Google and Microsoft Azure, two of the biggest cloud companies, are purchasing renewable energy credits to match their data centre growth. This means as their electricity use rises, the companies are paying for an equal amount of renewable energy to be built elsewhere. AWS is the largest cloud server in the world, but has repeatedly come under fire for its opaqueness surrounding climate issues, including failing to report energy consumption and carbon emissions figures, until finally announcing in 2019 that they would begin reporting.
For our hypothetical law firm, savings from switching from on premises (non-green) servers to a Cloud server using 100% green electricity would be 19 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. However, although the direct savings of this switch are low compared to some other figures, the savings are smart strategically because cloud servers facilitate the ability to tele-commute and tele-conference.
When added to the savings for upgrading to Fibre-to-Premises, the savings for upgrading IT infrastructure are 5,046 metric tonnes of CO2 per year.
Remote working consists of reducing carbon emissions on commuting and business travel. Reducing commuting is culturally acceptable for many law firms, particularly as carbon emissions reductions dovetail with financial savings on office space and a better quality of life. Before COVID-19, reducing business travel (i.e. non-commuting travel) was out of consideration for many law firms. Since clients and conferences have moved online as a result of COVID-19, business travel is being reconsidered by some law firms, and reducing business travel may become more acceptable as clients come to expect, and even demand, it; Covid-19 has shown that these reductions are in many cases not impacting client service or business development, which should make it acceptable to even the most reluctant of partners.
In terms of savings on commuting, Consultancy CarbonSmart found that increasing remote working in the UK could reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 2.5 million cars off the road long term. In addition to carbon emissions reductions, studies have shown significant increases in productivity from remote work. Siemens, Compaq, Cisco, Merrill Lynch, Nortel and American Express have reported increases of between 10% and 50% in productivity as a result of telework programs, and a five-year Smart Valley study found an average of 25% increase in productivity for participating companies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accelerated the trend to remote work. In David Morley’s article, “COVID Crystal Ball,” he writes that, as a result of the global pandemic, flexible work has “overnight gone from tolerated to mainstream. A winning strategy will embrace that change and figure out how to prosper from it…. Flexible working means the days of big, expensive offices for law firms in the centre of big, expensive cities are numbered”. Even as some states move to reopen their economies, law firm leaders say they’re currently in no hurry to reopen their offices’ doors, and that their remote work situations are sufficient. Slater and Gordon is set to close its London base permanently in favour of a remote working model, with smaller spaces to be used for hosting meetings, from September 2020 onwards. It will be interesting to see how law firms respond once the Covid-19 Pandemic ebbs, but it seems that working practices will have made a permanent adjustment, with clients satisfied with Firms’ productivity.
For our hypothetical law firm, we’ve calculated commuting savings using the averages published by NYC gov planning and the US census. The emissions from commuting for remote work for our hypothetical law firm equal approximately 1,344 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. With a 45% reduction in commuting (in line with the initial downsizing of the office space), there would be a savings of 605 metric tonnes of CO2 per year.
In terms of business travel, replacing physical client visits with video conferencing can achieve a 40- to 70-fold reduction in travel-related CO2 emissions, whilst shaving time off meetings. For a law firm, those reductions in carbon emissions come with cost savings for the travel budget. In some industries (like our technology industry), clients are increasingly expecting online meetings. Although reductions in business travel will likely spring back after COVID-19, there is an opportunity to lock in some of the reductions in business travel in order to reduce carbon emissions, as tele-conferencing has become our new normal. Given the investment and improvement in teleconferencing technology, extensive business travel may become a reputational risk for a law firm - as more clients are cutting back on their own consumption and travel, they may be surprised to find themselves funding their lawyers’ carbon footprints.
Flights, which are one form of travel that the firms largely control (while they can influence or encourage various forms of commute or lack thereof, ultimately that is governed by factors outside the firm’s direct control) have the most extreme carbon emissions per journey. To put the difference between train and plane in perspective, a return from London to Moscow uses up one-fifth of an individual’s “carbon budget” for the whole year. Making the same journey by train would use roughly one-40th of their yearly budget.
For our hypothetical law firm, the savings from reductions in business flights are up to 843 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. Together with reductions from commuting related to remote work, the total savings in emissions for remote working would be 1,448 metric tonnes of CO2 per year.
Paper reduction is a clear, relatively simple starting point for law firms. While building emissions and commuting travel require changes to a law firm’s infrastructure, paper reduction is a cultural issue that often does not require such long-term planning. The continuing development of better screens and screen-based review tools also means printing paper is becoming less useful, and as digital features continue to develop paper documents will become increasingly less relevant.
Law firms and lawyers are outliers in terms of paper use. According to Envirowise, an average office worker uses 50 sheets a day in unnecessary printing (18,250 sheets a year), while ETA at Berkley gives a more conservative average of 10,000 sheets year. By comparison, a 2011 study found that an average lawyer generates 20,000 to 100,000 pages per year -5-10 times more than an average Office worker. Our hypothetical law firm is printing approximately 73 million pages per year. In total, they are emitting 951 metric tonnes of CO2 per year from Paper & toner usage.
Most figures calculating emissions of paper consider the actual manufacturing and life-cycle of the product itself, and perhaps the print costs. But for a law firm, the biggest related emission is actually housing the filing - If we follow a conservative estimate our calculations come to 7,785 sq ft per year archived of filing space - with building emissions and utilities we would be looking at 461-561 metric tonnes of CO2 per annum. A similar company that wasn’t a law firm would produce 5-10x less in carbon emissions related to paper.
For our hypothetical law firm, the savings from reductions attributable to paper storage, printer use, saved toner and paper are approximately 951 metric tonnes of CO2 per year.
For unavoidable emissions, carbon offsetting allows a firm to take responsibility for its carbon footprint by purchasing carbon credits – micro-investments in projects that are reducing carbon actively elsewhere. This affordable option offsets a law firm’s carbon emissions by investing in carbon emissions reductions programs that would not otherwise be funded (“additionality”). Carbon emissions offsetting has gone through several iterations and has significantly progressed with best practices for additionality required today by many players in the market.
Caitlin Drown of Climate Neutral, notes that the most efficient way to pursue carbon offsetting is by using a third-party's carbon calculator (for the sake of full disclosure, PartnerVine partners with Climate Neutral for Climate Neutral Certification by measuring, offsetting, and reducing its emissions). PartnerVine uses Climate Neutral's Brand Emissions Estimator (the BEE) to calculate all of its carbon emissions. The BEE simplifies the carbon accounting process while maintaining credibility. Climate Neutral, a nonprofit organization, was founded after its two founding partners had independently taken their own companies through the process and realised that the cost of offsetting emissions was not expensive but the process of calculating those emissions was more complicated than it needed to be. Using a third party like Climate Neutral also allows for certification of a company’s sustainability efforts, and purchasing offsets at scale.
Climate Neutral estimates that a law firm would emit between 100-200 tonnes of carbon per $1 million in revenue. If our hypothetical law firm emitted 150 tonnes of carbon per $1 million in revenue, it would need to offset 101,850 metric tonnes of CO2 annually. Although the price of high-quality credits offsetting carbon emissions fluctuates, a reasonable assumption of $8 per tonne of carbon means carbon offsets could be purchased for $814,800 per year.
To compare options for reducing carbon emissions, we defined a hypothetical law firm with revenue that reflected the average of the Global 200. We chose New York as a base for our firm to calculate figures like the size of a lawyer’s office and the length of a lawyer’s commute.
Average law firm in the Global 200
|Revenue per year
|Number of lawyers
|Revenue per lawyer per year
|Location of Headquarters
|New York, NY
|Square foot per lawyer
|Metric tonnes CO2 per year
|Cost to offset per year
For simplicity’s sake, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, which has had an obvious impact on typical working patterns, was not factored into these models, since it is anomalous.
We’ve set forth five steps to address carbon emissions for law firms. Two major contributors to carbon emissions for law firms that we’ve identified – building emissions and travel – are common across many industries. In addition, we have highlighted upgrading to direct-fibre optic cable and switching to green server-providers because the savings are significant and relatively easy to achieve. The fourth step – reducing paper emissions—is one which is often at the top of a list of a law firms’ steps toward sustainability, and law firms are uniquely intensive users of paper. We hope these steps give decision-makers at law firms some idea of the steps needed to move toward sustainability.
Sustainability is an on-going effort. Although pursuing a step like the hub-and-spoke office model sounds long term, law firms can affect change relatively quickly compared to companies within the manufacturing and energy industries, for instance. For any company, a sensible strategy is the same: (1) establish objectives for an annual emissions reduction plan and (2) purchase carbon offset emissions for those emissions that can’t be eliminated. Having gone climate neutral ourselves, the time and money to do so is far less than we expected. We hope law firms will consider doing so.
PartnerVine was certified as climate neutral for both of 2019 and 2020. For more information, read the most recent announcement here.
Climate Neutral certifies PartnerVine's greenhouse gas emissions. For more information on Climate Neutral, see here.