Sustainability: Corporate Culture at Alston & Bird LLP
Earth Day isn’t just for tree-huggers anymore. The sustainability movement has brought environmental issues into the conversation for most businesses. But how can BigLaw firms go from talking about it to taking meaningful action? We talked to Alston & Bird partner Peter Masaitis about his dedication to going “green.” Why is sustainability important to Alston & Bird? We view sustainability as an integral part of our commitment to corporate responsibility, along with initiatives like diversity and pro bono programs. Sustainability was recognized seven to eight years ago by our firm as being a priority, and it is now integrated into firm culture. It’s part of who we are.
Why did you want to take a lead in your firm’s sustainability program? It’s definitely a personal passion. As a partner in the products liability group, there’s no direct connection between sustainability and my legal practice. Maybe it’s from growing up in the Pacific Northwest, but being “green” is an important part of my value system.
Does an employee’s work on sustainability ever conflict with billable hours or other job responsibilities? We genuinely consider non-billable work as a meaningful, required part of our attorneys’ commitment to the firm. For example, I’m a billing partner who spends a very significant amount of time on sustainability, and it’s encouraged and appreciated by the firm. Overall, we have 75-100 employees, attorneys and staff, who opt-in to be involved in the sustainability program.
Do you think employees have more job satisfaction as a result of being involved in sustainability work? Alston & Bird is the first and only law firm to be listed for 16 consecutive years on the annual Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, most recently ranking #41 amongst all U.S. companies. We think our commitment to sustainability is one of many parts of that recognition, and it creates an environment where everyone feels like a stakeholder in firm operations. For example, a staff member in our Washington D.C office suggested changing the reimbursement process to eliminate paper. We took her idea, ran it up the chain and made the change.
Alston & Bird is a founding member of the Law Firm Sustainability Network and you’ve been the president for three years. What is the mission of the group and your role? The group’s mission is to establish sustainability as a key component of law firms’ professional responsibility. It’s important because it encourages leadership and innovation. Working with this network allows me to reach out to the legal community as a whole to share knowledge and encourage development and improvement of sustainable practices beyond my own firm.
What has been the most surprising experience or result from your work with the Law Firm Sustainability Network? We often invite non-members to monthly webinars and sometimes get basic questions that surprise me. For example, questions about double-sided printing, which is definitely not cutting edge. Sometimes smaller firms haven’t even made “low-hanging fruit” adjustments yet. I’ve found that the majority of the legal industry is still lagging behind on basic sustainability improvements.
How do you communicate the benefit of sustainability to attorneys who might not be as interested as you are in saving the planet? The common denominator is efficiency. Law firms are for-profit businesses and showing that sustainability helps the bottom line can be a very convincing argument. For example, we track our print jobs firmwide, and can quantify the paper savings we’ve seen from the move to duplex printing. Paper is a significant overhead cost at any firm, and we were able to show that duplex printing was saving the firm, on average, over $80,000 a year.
Your Atlanta office achieved LEED Gold for Commercial Interiors in 2014 . Have you noticed any impact on the attorneys working from that office? We did this in conjunction with a full renovation, so there were very notable changes. It’s a much lighter and airier space than the previous design scheme. The whole work environment feels cleaner. In terms of energy efficiency, the upgrades have significantly decreased electricity use and we’ve also improved our water conservation. Many of the improvements were behind-the-scenes, such as recycling demolished materials.
Do you plan on having more office spaces LEED certified? There is a high cost to LEED, which is a consideration. Atlanta is our headquarters, so we wanted to begin there. For smaller offices, we don’t always pursue LEED certification, but we still apply the same sustainability construction and design standards.
The LFSN is currently working on the American Legal Industry Sustainability Standards (ALISS), what is this and how does it compare to or compliment LEED? ALISS is a LEED-like self-assessment tool that provides a comprehensive analysis of a firm’s sustainability and results in a ranking. It’s also a guideline for firms that are looking to improve their sustainability -- to know what to do next. Unlike LEED, it is based on self-reporting so it is less cumbersome and expensive. There’s an online tool with an initial launch, first for LFSN members, on Earth Day this year.
What are some basic sustainability best practices for law firms? Does it start with paper? Firms just implementing sustainability programs should always start with paper because it is one of the biggest resources consumed in the legal industry and is also the easiest to conserve through policy shifts. Electricity conservation is a next step. Upgrading computers and appliances, installing automatic light sensors, and retrofitting light fixtures with more efficient sources reduces consumption. Some of the associated costs can be recovered through government rebates. Additionally, building good habits amongst employees, like turning off lights and computers at night and both recycling and reusing are important first steps.
Lawyers are not known for embracing change quickly, are there any behavioral changes that would make firms more sustainable? Attorneys are often resistant to change, but they are also competitive by nature. As soon as one firm is doing it, all other firms want to do it too. We are getting sustainable practices to a point where enough firms are doing it so that, regardless of individual views, sustainability will become a norm and expectation for law firms.