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Recycle this President’s column

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich

If my habits are any indication, you probably did not race to read the President’s column when this journal arrived. Most of us go to disciplinary notices first to see if there is anyone we know there, or to satisfy some morbid curiosity. Then we scan for legal issues that interest us. If the commute is especially slow that day or we still have a few more minutes on the stationary bike, then — as a very last resort, we might look at the President’s column.

This is not because we’ve lacked good Presidents who are talented writers and have interesting things to say. The problem is that President’s columns by definition demand that the President tell you something that you already know: namely, the President is grateful for your support and believes in the bar, the bar is working for you, pro bono service is good and valuable, and so on. So instead, I’m going to write about the ideas that made me want to devote time to this bar in the first place — ideas from bar associations (not necessarily ours) that every lawyer can use to make our profession a little better. 

Let’s start small . . . with saving the planet one law office at a time. 

Law offices generally have not focused much on our energy consumption and waste habits.  However, recently as a nation we’ve had to confront the idea that at current energy consumption levels, the world will run out of oil by the end of the 21st century. Even more troubling, perhaps, is the thought that we might run out of atmosphere before we run out of oil. Over the next few years, every economic sector will need to change its habits to slow down energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions while we all switch to renewable resources. In particular, we’ll need immediately to change habits that have caused carbon dioxide to spike and accelerate global warming. Reducing paper use, for example, saves trees (which take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere), and recycling paper reduces greenhouse gas emissions from landfills.

As a profession, lawyers aren’t the worst carbon offenders, but clearly we can do a lot better. As simple examples, a typical large firm buys as much as 100,000 sheets of copying/printing paper per attorney per year. This is about one page per minute of attorney billable time, or a half-ton of paper a year per lawyer. The production/use/disposal of that paper alone creates about 5.5 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions for each of us. When we aren’t using paper, we’re usually planted in front of our computer monitors. Hanging on to old CRT Monitors instead of upgrading to LCD flat panel displays, or using inefficient server configurations, is wasteful, unnecessarily expensive and harmful to the environment. So we have room to improve.

Fortunately, lawyers and bar associations have been working on painless and often cost-free (or even cost-saving) ways that can make our offices greener without having to change our legal practice. Here are some approaches that will improve the world and get you a shout-out in a President’s column.

THE ABA CLIMATE CHALLENGE Bruce Lymburn, a partner at Oakland’s Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean (the first law firm nationally to be certified as a green business) and a green building pioneer, recommends that instead of trying to figure this out yourself, you visit the ABA Web site and join the ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge ( This program lays out exactly what every law office can do to qualify as a Climate Challenge Partner or Climate Challenge Leader. Lawyers can dramatically reduce energy consumption by adopting certain best practices for office paper management (e.g., using double-sided copies, buying more recycled materials, and recycling more yourself), upgrading to Energy Star equipment and using more renewable energy sources.

BAY AREA GREEN BUSINESS PROGRAM Regional efforts also exist to help us reduce our carbon footprint. For example, if your firm or practice is in the Bay Area, you may be able to gain certification as a green business through the Association of Bay Area Governments’ Green Business Program ( Several Bay Area law firms have already reduced their fossil fuel consumption and gained certification through ABAG’s program.

KEEPING UP WITH OREGON Perhaps it is because they are closer to the polar ice cap than we are, but some Oregon lawyers have gotten well out in front of Californians in developing user-friendly guides for greening your office. The Oregon Lawyers for a Sustainable Future Web site has a handy model law office sustainability policy with easy to follow instructions on how to reduce energy waste in your office: These include:

  • Desk-side recycling boxes at each workstation
  • Trade in your fax machine for a right-fax program on your computer so you can receive and circulate faxes without paper
  • Scan documents rather than photocopy them
  • Stop using paper versions of directories, dictionaries, codes and other basic reference books, and access them online instead.
  • Buy paper with a minimum of 30 percent post-consumer recycled content
  • Purchase letterhead, envelopes, legal pads and paper towels that are 100 percent recycled
  • Reuse binders, clips, etc.
  • Recycle laser printer cartridges
  • Set up timers to turn off lights when lawyers are out of the office
  • Make it firm policy to turn off your computers at the end of the day
  • Make employees pay for parking, but subsidize or pay for mass transit use.

If lawyers in Oregon can think of these simple policies, I’m sure we can think of some more ourselves.

COPY WHAT WORKS Finally, there are living examples around the state of firms that with a small amount of effort have achieved major changes. In addition to Wendel, Rosen, other law firms have made a big difference. For example, Morrison & Foerster launched an effort that is saving significant amounts of energy and eliminating tons of empty toner cartridges and electronic equipment from California landfills. Nixon Peabody LLP in San Francisco became one of the first law firms in the nation to bring its office in line with its principles by designing and building its new office to be a model of sustainability using green building techniques. 

By devoting just a little time to these efforts, you can not only make the world better, but you may end up in a President’s column that somebody finally reads.

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