Sitting near the reclaimed redwood tree trunk doubling as a coffee table, next to the "partner views" of sailboats bobbing in San Francisco Bay, visitors could be forgiven for mistaking Nixon Peabody's new "green" office lobby for the grand entrance of a high-end hotel. But the resemblance is more than skin deep. Low-wattage lighting, formaldehyde-free furniture, IceStone countertops (from recycled glass and seashells), and "harvested" walnut floors (from retired fruit trees) have all helped Nixon Peabody plant a flag: It's the nation's first law firm to gain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in the category of commercial interiors.
In November, the firm even appointed a "chief sustainability officer" to further shrink its carbon footprint. But it is not alone in its eco-friendly efforts. Whether to win clients, attract talent, or just do the right thing, many California law firms are wholeheartedly embracing the environmental trend in a physical way-right down to their conference room cutlery.
Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman recently dedicated some of its legal talent to thinking green, asking its new director of corporate social responsibility to consider sustainability goals in addition to diversity and pro bono work. Attorneys for DLA Piper can include a signature line in their emails asking the receiver to please think about the environment before hitting the Print button. And Goodwin Procter's eco-friendly office policies in Los Angeles (encouraging paper conservation and the like) have now gone firmwide.
Such initiatives can be found statewide, but the movement's beating green heart remains in Northern California. At Farella Braun + Martel's San Francisco office, for example, lunchtime visitors can toss their potato starchbased forks into the conference room compost bin, and there's nary a water bottle, plastic cup, or water cooler to be found. Software that checks the impulse to print emails, settings that default to double-sided printing on 100 percent recycled paper, and the use of environmentally friendly cleaning supplies are all part of why Farella was the city's first midsize law firm to be certified "green" by the Bay Area Green Business program. A framed plaque listing this 2006 accomplishment, signed by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and written in green ink on recycled paper, holds pride of place on the receptionist's desk.
"I try to keep a paperless office," says 34-year-old partner Kevin Poloncarz, who sits on Farella's Green Task Force. "I'm not into that tactile holding of paper ... that's generational," he adds.
Generational or not, initial staff pushback to such changes and initiatives is not uncommon.
"There was a certain amount of jaw dropping in the room," recalls Nixon Peabody attorney Andrea R. Cohen of the meeting in which she proposed getting the San Francisco office LEED-certified. But, she adds, "Clients appreciate so much that we think about this stuff."
In fact, influential clients can even help override staff reluctance. Wal-Mart, a Farella client, is pushing for increased greenery all along its supply chain, and that process has helped bring the firm's lollygaggers along, Poloncarz notes.
Although Farella's environmental efforts haven't necessarily translated into new business yet, like diversity and lifestyle they have certainly become a factor in attracting new talent. "We have a different starting salary than some of the big firms, and it's really important to differentiate ourselves as much as we can, based on elements that are consistent with the firm ethos," says Poloncarz.
There's no data yet on how many law firms are seeking flashy green certifications, or going green internally in small, quotidian ways. But as more California firms tout their good deeds, it's likely that the number of firms trying to outdo each other will bloom.
As Andrea Lewis, Farella's facilities and business services manager, predicts, "In six months if you're not going green, or green already, I think it'll count against you."