The Paper Chase: Going Green in the Legal Field

Ecology balance - 3d illustration with ecology icons on grey wooden background.
This blog post is a reprint of the winning entry in the WSBA Business Law Section’s Green Writing Contest for law school students.

This blog post is a reprint of the winning entry in the WSBA Business Law Section’s Green Writing Contest for law school students. The author, Greg Simpson, is in his final year at the Seattle University School of Law. His essay first appeared in the section’s fall newsletter.

We are all aware of the major effects our actions have on the environment. Worldwide, there are major pushes to transition to renewable energy, drive electric cars, and recycle everything under the sun. But how often do we stop and think about the impact our work lives have on the world? A constant stream of papers coming across the desk, lights on in the office for 12 hours a day, and daily commutes have larger effects than making us ready to head home at 6 p.m. As attorneys (and future attorneys), we should strive to be progressive not only in dealing with legal issues, but in helping the environment as well.

Last year, I was asked to print some records for discovery review by a senior attorney at the firm where I worked. This seemed like a normal task at first, until I found out that the records totaled over 3,000 pages. I went back to the attorney to double check that he was aware of the file size. He responded that yes, he was aware, but he preferred to review hard copies of records. Being in no position to question the attorney, I proceeded to fill bankers’ boxes with the records and place the boxes in his office. The records sat in his office for a couple of weeks, until the case settled and I was asked to place the records in a bin to be shredded. In the end, the 3,000 pages were wasted, all within a firm that was regarded as a mostly “paperless” office.

Increased capabilities of case management and other legal software were supposed to lead to truly paperless legal offices. However, a truly paperless legal office may not be possible at this point. Many courts require hard copies for filings, clients need hard copies of documents, and there truly is a difference between reading something on a screen and holding it in your hand. However, small changes can add up fast. What if you didn’t print a document until you believed it was ready to send? What if you stopped printing out emails altogether? These changes might only save a couple of pages per day, but if every attorney in Washington was conscious of their paper use, millions of sheets (and trees) would be saved.

In addition to saving paper, attorneys can save energy with small changes throughout the day. For example, turning the lights off when leaving the office could add up throughout the year. For those who forget to flip the switch, motion sensors are extremely cost-effective and easy solutions. Setting computers to sleep after a short period of idling decreases power consumption as well. As winter approaches, many will break out their space heaters for the office. These machines use a significant amount of power even on their lowest setting. Using a space heater sparingly is an easy way to save energy and save the environment.

The commute is another place where attorneys can make a big change to help the environment. Fuel emissions are one of the most widely discussed environmental issues, and we all know why: every day, we drive machines that emit chemicals that are harmful to the planet. For some it’s a necessity. For others, it’s a matter of convenience. The least we can do as attorneys is consider whether there are other viable options for our daily commute. Public transit is an option for many who live in the greater Seattle area. Between the trains and buses, the transit system is easy to use and rapidly expanding. Other options include carpooling, biking, or working remotely when possible. It may be that these options don’t work for everyone, but it’s important to remember that driving to and from work every day affects more people than just yourself.

As attorneys, we owe it to ourselves and our profession to be on the forefront of making change for the greater good. The work day presents challenges that can distract us from the bigger picture. The important thing is to be conscious about the effects our decisions have on the world around us. The changes I’ve suggested may seem insignificant, but if everyone makes a small change, it can add up into something much bigger than any one of us.