The “green” movement is everywhere. Suddenly, everyone is becoming a bit more environmentally conscious. How can lawyers contribute to the green movement by making their practices more environmentally friendly? The key may be in the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
The first R, reduce, is the most powerful because it stops waste before it happens. The easiest reductions for lawyers to make are those involving paper and use of unnecessary energy.
Lawyers can be more mindful of the supplies used in the office, how they are being used and whether they are necessary in the first place – particularly paper. Some law firms are still creating paper-based “chrons” for each of their attorneys – copies of every document generated by the attorney in chronological order. This is a colossal waste of paper, particularly when documents can be searched by date in almost every computer system.
Keep it digital – in many circumstances, paper is not necessary at all. Not only are electronic files more environmentally friendly, but using electronic, rather than paper-based, data allows several people to view the file at once and prevents someone from removing the file from the office. Electronic data also reduces the need for storage space.
Don’t fall prey to “Post-it-itis.” Enter tasks directly onto the calendar or tickler list and forgo the Post-it note. Archive emails as part of the electronic file by saving the copy to a file instead of printing it. If necessary, you can save an additional electronic copy of the email in your email system in a client folder as well. Invoice clients electronically and pay bills on-line.
Use e-fax rather than paper fax – the fax will arrive in your email inbox as an attachment which can be copied to the client’s electronic file. Send faxes directly from your computer, rather than printing and then faxing documents.
Save even more storage space by returning original documents and files to clients at the end of the case, creating electronic files for archiving and eliminating the paper files. Request large files (such as medical records) on disk wherever possible, and send documents on disk – you will save paper, copying costs and postage.
Do not leave legal pads in file folders with only two or three pages of notes. Rip out and file the notes and re-use the rest of the legal pad. Eliminate unnecessary pages before printing. Do not create multiple copies of the same document within a file or multiple copies for multiple attorneys in the office. Even where a paper copy is necessary, multiple copies are almost always not necessary.
Many lawyers rely on paper because they are afraid of losing important information; they fear that electronic data is unstable. All law firms should have secure, offsite backup systems in place to safeguard their data. Good document management systems and procedures can help combat the fear of “losing” important client information.
Reduce junk mail by going to sites such as DMAchoice.org – the Direct Marketing Association helps identify which mail to eliminate before it gets sent to the office. Lawyers who attend conferences often return to a deluge of mail. Request that vendors not mail offers to the office, and actively seek that organizations and professional associations reduce or eliminate paper mailings in favor of email notification.
Turn off office lights, computers, and other equipment when not in use. Even when computers and other appliances are turned off, they may be drawing power and using energy. Unplug whenever possible. Use a smart power strip with an on/off switch to increase energy savings by powering off multiple items at once. It is appalling to drive in an industrial area at night and see all of the office buildings with lights burning all night long. Night time cleaning crews should be instructed to turn off the lights when they are finished with their work. Turn down the heat and air conditioning during off hours and weekends. Use lighting that uses less energy, such as compact fluorescent bulbs.
Adjust computer energy savings settings during the day to save energy during periods of inactivity, such as during lunch, during court appearances or meetings with clients or colleagues.
Keep computers cool without using electricity. The fan and the exhaust port are the parts of the computer that help it to stay cool. A separate fan is not necessary if those areas of the computer are kept clean regularly. Use a brush instead of canned air. While canned air is commonly used to clean computers, as a compressed product, it is not the best for the environment, and if used incorrectly can actually be harmful to your computer and the propellant can be toxic. Clear the clutter away from the computer’s exhaust port. Keep the computer out of direct sunlight and move it a few inches away from the wall to allow air to circulate. Keep pets away from the computer – pet hair can clog up the fan. When buying office electronics, consider energy efficiency and look for the energy star label. When buying furniture, seek out recycled products and low VOC emissions. Take advantage of remote access capabilities to allow lawyers and staff to telecommute or consider a condensed workweek – working four 10 hour days rather than five eight hour days to reduce commuting time and energy.
Provide incentives and perks for those who employ energy saving techniques at the office or who suggest the best green office changes. One local law firm pays the staff cash if they get a client’s email address so they can communicate with clients electronically rather than by sending snail mail. Consider giving a bonus or stipend to those who can commute in a more environmentally friendly way, such as ride sharing, purchasing a hybrid vehicle or bicycling to work.
Some things cannot be eliminated entirely. In those circumstances, look for ways to reuse. Encourage brown-bagging lunch and using reusable bags. Purchase reusable plates, cups and flatware for the office rather than using disposable paper products. Use a travel cup for coffee instead of the store’s paper cups.
When a case is over, do not archive the file with all of the interior folders, dividers, and the file folder if they’re in good condition. Reuse those files and archive only the necessary paperwork from the file.
File folders are not the only efficient method of keeping client information organized. Consider a switch to a new system that can be reused, such as binders – when the case is over, remove the contents from the binder and reuse the binder and dividers.
Instead of buying boxes of disposable pens, encourage attorneys and staff to use a pen that takes refills instead. Consider buying the attorneys and staff in your office ‘good’ pens as a gift to get the process started; Get two uses out of one piece of paper. If you must print drafts of documents or emails, etc. for review, reuse the paper – flip it over and put it back in the printer for other draft documents. Print documents double-sided whenever possible.
Lawyers generate a lot of paper, much of which can be recycled – even after it is shredded. Recycle bottles and cans in the office, not just at home. Arrange for a firm (or building) -wide recycling program for these items. Old computers, electronic equipment and other items can be recycled as well. Many charities take used cell phones, computer equipment, office furniture, eyeglasses and more.
Lawyers can seek out ways to contribute to the environment and the community by recycling items or donating items that the firm and its employees no longer use or need. Get clients and their businesses involved in these efforts as well.
The benefits to becoming a “greener” law firm are many. Aside from caring for the environment and the community, firms that undertake some of these measures will reap rewards in increased productivity and efficiency, reduction of office clutter, cost savings, public relations, stronger client relationships and more opportunities to connect with clients and the community.
Allison C. Shields, Esq., President of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc. helps lawyers and law firms create more productive, profitable and enjoyable law practices. Find more ideas for improving your law firm on her website at www.LawyerMeltdown.com or on her blog at http://www.LegalEaseConsulting.com/.
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