As I turned on the Energy Star-qualified fluorescent lights in my office and looked at my desk, I had a momentary moment of self-doubt. Another day, another skirmish in the ongoing war to implement sustainable business practices at Sherman, Frost & Whittle, LLP. Yes, our offices have been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as a Leader in Energy and Environmental Design. Yes, we were the first law firm in Boston to appoint a Chief Sustainability Officer (me!) whose mandate was not simply to bill more hours, but to develop—and implement—environmentally-friendly policies for our lawyers and clients. Yes, I had successfully led the charge to include “Please consider the environment before printing out this email” on all of our electronic communications.
“Hey–turn out the lights!”
Yes, yes, and yes. And yet I knew, in the innermost chamber of my heart, which beat rapidly from my 19-story climb up the fire stairs in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, that the battle was far from over. Every day it began anew, as older partners, unused to technology, and corner-cutting associates, eager to get to the singles bars at the end of the workday, printed out copies of 60-page indentures instead of staying in the office and reading them on their computer screens.
It was the people who were the biggest obstacles to change, damn it! Why couldn’t the other lawyers realize that if we didn’t take steps—today—to implement sustainability into everything we do, in say ten or fifteen years—maybe sooner—we might not be able to spend eighteen hours a day poring over boring legal documents as we do now. No—the temperature of the earth will have risen to a point where we’ll be only be able to stand sixteen or seventeen hours a day in the office, unless we don’t have central air conditioning at home, in which case we may just stay here and abandon our children, who may have to resort to cannibalism because the price of gas will be so high we won’t be able to drive to the grocery store anymore.
But I can’t let myself be distracted by daydreams of a dismal future. I’ve got to “keep on keeping on”, as we used to say in the ‘60’s, in order to prevent the future from happening.
I pick up my Sierra Cub mug and head down to the kitchen for some chamomile tea. As I turn the corner, I see Evan Winslow, a young partner in the real estate department, pouring coffee into paper cups for himself and a client.
“My best guess is it will take a minimum of 90 days,” Winslow is saying to a beefy-looking man in a starched, open-collared shirt and loud sports jacket—probably a developer of hideous suburban mansions that contribute to “sprawl”.
I clear my throat. “Ah-hem.”
“Oh, excuse me, Myrna, I didn’t hear you come in.” Winslow steps aside, giving me a clear path to the coffee machine if I want it.
“Ahem!” I repeat.
“You got a cold?” the client asks.
“No,” I reply, as diplomatically as I can. I nod at his paper cup.
“You want my coffee?”
“No,” I say in a tone that I hope he will perceive as stern. “Evan should have offered you one of our reusable cups for your coffee, rather than adding to the waste stream.”
The client looks at Evan as if I’m the crackpot. Evan shrugs his shoulders and the men pour their coffee into two ceramic “SF&W” mugs I hold out to them. I hand them their mugs, give them a look intended to say in a non-verbal way “Don’t do that again”, then turn on my heel and proceed down the hall with my tea.
I pass by a conference room where a closing is in progress—what a gory spectacle! Multiple copies of documents stacked on top of each other like animals at a slaughterhouse! I sidle in and hover behind Wells McCardle, a young associate who’s guiding an executive through the signing process.
“Hello, Wells,” I say with an air that I hope will remind him of a high school teacher about to send him to detention.
“Oh, hi Myrna. Let me introduce you to Jack van Arsdale, CEO of Phlegmatic Tools. Jack, this is Myrna Flick, our CLFSO.”
“Chief Law Firm Sustainability Officer.”
“Oh–nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say and extend my hand. “Wells, how many copies of that document did you make?”
“Twelve. One for the client’s files, one for our files, one for the bank, one for their lawyer, eight credenza binders for all the people who worked on the deal . . .”
“You didn’t make any for their pets, or their elected representatives at the local, state and federal levels of government?” I give him a wink as the client goes back to scribbling.
“Uh, I guess I may have overdone it.”
“You guessed right,” I snap at the young lawyer. “Mr. van Arsdale,” I say to the CEO in my most sonorous, client-friendly voice.
“I think you’ve signed enough copies.”
“But Wells here said . . .”
“Never mind what Wells said. Sometimes lawyers have a fetish about copies.”
“My hand was getting tired . . .”
“We can scan one original into a DVD that we will distribute to ‘all hands’.”
“Gee, that’s great. Thanks—thanks a lot Ms. . . .”
“I’ll remember that name,” he says with a beaming smile as he replaces the cap on his gold-trimmed pen.
“I’m sure you will,” I say as I give the young lawyer a look that lets him know he could learn a thing or two from me about what it takes to make clients happy!
I head down the hall, “keeping things sustainable by walking around” I like to call it when I give my annual lecture each fall to incoming associates. A lot of them smirk when I tell them that two-sided copying is mandatory—not optional—if they want to save the earth and all of its creatures. Then I show them a slide of a clear-cut forest in Maine, an environmental tragedy of which we—the supposedly well-intentioned members of the Boston bar—are the playwrights. There’s usually an audible little gasp when the legal tyros see helpless rabbits, minks and weasels scurrying away from the flames, although that could just be belches caused by all the Diet Coke the female lawyers drink.
I look out at them and think of myself so long ago; a green young lawyer, fresh from capping off my law school career as Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Solid Waste, one of the first law reviews devoted entirely to environmental issues. When I arrived for my first day as a summer clerk wearing a peasant blouse and Earth Shoes, the ingenious footwear that made it seem you were walking uphill all day long, a bit sweaty from my ride in from Cambridge and the effort required to lug my bike up to the library in the elevator, the older generation of the firm—Messrs. Sherman, Frost & Whittle—had all looked somewhat askance at me. When I started to get off at the main reception floor, they demurred.
“Bike messengers report to the sixth floor, please,” said Mr. Frost.
“I’m one of your new lawyers!” I said cheerfully.
“You look like one of the people who want to save the gay baby whales!” Mr. Whittle cried out in surprise.
“You mean Greenpeace?” I asked.
“That’s them! I throw them off my property. I got a restraining order against one particularly persistent young chap,” Mr. Whittle said.
“I’m a card-carrying member!” I said.
“Oh dear,” Mr. Sherman said softly.
“Well, I suppose if someone hired you,” Mr. Frost said, “we’re honor-bound to keep you until August when we send you a letter of regret telling you that you don’t fit in, and we wish you the best of luck in your future career.”
The three walked off together, shaking their heads and muttering among themselves, but I proved them wrong. My 60-page brief on the application of the exclusionary rule to a seizure of short lobsters at a clam bake that Mr. Sherman foolishly decided to hold within plain view of a Department of Environmental Protection patrol boat saved his sorry butt from a hefty fine and possible jail time. I came to be valued for myself, despite my politics and what Mr. Whittle once referred to as the “underbrush” growing in my armpits.
But the long slog to achieve a totally “green” law firm environment was beginning to get me down. As I turned the corner I looked into a large conference room where hectic activity was underway, perhaps the continuation of an all-night session from the day before.
“Call the SEC,” a senior partner named Dan Craven shouted at an associate as he crumpled up a page of a prospectus that had done something to infuriate him and tossed it across the room. “We’ll have to put a sticker on the prospectus to correct your stupid mistake!”
I entered as quietly as I could and surveyed the scene. I did not like what I saw.
“Mr. Craven,” I began softly but firmly.
“What?” he replied, almost distraught.
“I think you’re forgetting something . . .”
“You mean there’s something else wrong with the disclosures?”
I cast my eyes towards the wastebasket, where the offending page rested atop a greasy pizza plate.
“Myrna, please,” he groaned, “I don’t have time to play games. Does the prospectus contain an untrue statement of a material fact or omit to state facts that cause it to be materially misleading?”
“No,” I say calmly, as I watch the beads of sweat that had formed on his brow trickle slowly down his face. “Paper goes in the recycling bin, not in the wastebasket!”
I nod my head at the blue plastic container in the corner. “Let’s recycle that sheet of paper you so carelessly tossed aside so that the rain forest will be around for our children when we die.”
Craven exhales with a sense of blessed relief, and for the first time all morning I feel just a teensy bit fulfilled. “No need to thank me, Mr. Craven,” I say with the crisp professionalism I’m capable of when I see my hard work produce even the slightest bit of progress. “All in day’s work—for a Chief Law Firm Sustainability Officer.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Lawyers Are People Too–Sort Of.”