Creating a Law Firm Sustainability Practice

By Max Miller

At Tonkon Torp LLP, an 84 lawyer Portland firm, we have considered sustainability as it relates both to office practices and the practice of law. Our initial interest came in the Spring of 1999 when the firm hosted a seven-week NW Earth Institute discussion course: “Choices for Sustainable Living.” The discussion in the sixth week was on sustainable business and the economy. One question posed was: “How can we encourage business to adopt sustainable practices and perspectives?” That prompted several of us to form a green committee that ultimately convinced firm management to join The Natural Step framework and to embark on several initiatives, including creating internal office practices geared toward fostering sustainability. At that time, though, despite several of our business clients being visible champions of sustainability, neither firm management nor the legal services market generally were quite ready for business lawyers focused on a sustainability practice. So, our green committee focused on internal sustainability measures instead.

Eight years later, in early 2007, business interest in sustainability had increased, Portland as a community was courting sustainability as a brand, and our management was beginning to see the importance of being able to speak coherently and succinctly about sustainability issues to many varied clients. We quickly discovered that many of our clients had positioned their businesses to manufacture and sell products and services geared toward consumers interested in sustainability. We also found that firm lawyers were already involved in rendering legal advice related to sustainability, for example, tax lawyers counseling on sustainability incentives, real estate lawyers advising on green buildings.

In spring, 2007, we hosted a CLE program by the Center for Earth Leadership: “Dimensions of Sustainability: Emerging Context for the Practice of Law.” Around the same time, Tonkon Torp officially launched its sustainability practice group to more sharply focus on practice areas related to sustainability: renewable energy, sustainable forestry, green building, advocating and lobbying on sustainability issues, and counseling clients who were launching or expanding businesses selling sustainable products or services or catering to consumers interested in sustainability. Tonkon Torp also formally adopted its own internal sustainability policy.

Organizing the sustainability practice group has been beneficial to the firm in the same way that our real estate practice group or our labor and employment practice group have. Some of our underlying assumptions in organizing the group were that (a) a law firm is not a mere collection of sole practitioners, (b) we likely provide better service to our sustainability clients if our wind energy development lawyers confer regularly with our business energy tax credit lawyers and our government relations specialists that are following or promoting legislation, and (c) formally gathering lawyers together that share an interest and background in sustainability issues should make us better lawyers. Convening the practice group has also helped us identify needs. For example, we found that we needed more depth of experience in water law issues, and we recently recruited a water law specialist to the firm.

Since 2007, the practice group has shifted its focus some. It initially started (and struggled to maintain) a sustainability law blog. We found over time that it was more efficient for individual lawyers to post on Twitter, rather than for the practice group to try to maintain a group blog. In addition, several sustainability issues have simply become main- stream within our other law practice disciplines. For example, our renewable energy practice is now an integral part of our overall energy law practice group, and our green buildings practice is an integral part of the real estate practice group.

As sustainability has become integrated into the practices of many lawyers and several practice groups, the sustainability practice group itself has found that it can cut back on the number of times it meets. Nevertheless, the Tonkon Torp sustainability practice group continues to meet regularly to discuss ways to better provide legal services and to learn from one another about the very diverse aspects of sustainability in the law.

Max Miller is a partner at Tonkon Torp.

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