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Green practice: Paper waste

Every Issue

Cite as: (2008) 82(11) LIJ, p. 94

Lawyers like their paper, but despite the paper chase there are ways to reduce consumption.

In the 1970s, many predictions were made about how the future would look. Some came true – there is a personal computer on every desk – but the paperless office remains a myth.

One of the biggest barriers to law firms reducing paper use is habit and culture.

The first step for a sustainable lawyer is to role model the behaviour that you are encouraging. This means reducing the number of documents you print, the number of pages per document and the number of people per team who print the same document.

Reduce, reuse, recycle . . . and repeat

There are few documents that lawyers must print – correspondence, court documents, counsel briefs and documents for the file. Effectively all of these can be doublesided (note the recent rule change allowing doublesided printing in the Victorian Supreme Court).

Documents for review or filing can be resized to fit four pages per printed page, and should only be printed by one person per file. Using both sides of notepads or the back of (non-confidential) waste paper when writing file notes will also halve paper use.

Obviously reduced paper use saves money, time and space. Clients and counsel will often be happy to receive materials either doublesided, or on CDs instead of in thick binders. Clients know it means less waste to pay for, counsel knows it means less weight to carry.

Why do lawyers still use so much paper?

A recent US study found that an average lawyer generates 20,000 to 100,000 pages per year (which translates to between 0.9 and 4.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions).1

Barriers to change that are frequently raised include:

  • readability;
  • risk of technological failure; and
  • privacy (paper can be shredded in a way emails cannot).

In terms of readability, paper does have advantages in many situations. However, in many cases, there are a handful of documents that need to be perused and revisited often, and a majority of documents that could be reviewed electronically (especially in the context of discovery).

In terms of computer failure, the risk is less and less due to back-up procedures, especially in networked computer systems or case management systems. Additionally, electronic storage allows for more efficient use of time through the effective use of precedents, avoids duplication and improves searchability.

In terms of privacy, firewalls and IT security devote significant resources to keeping systems safe. In addition, paper documents can be more easily misplaced, lost or left behind than a securely stored electronic file.

How do I convince everyone else?

There are many ways you can nudge your colleagues to consume less paper. Many people print because they feel they are required to.

If you’re junior, ask your instructing solicitor if it’s necessary for you to print a particular piece of work. If it is, can you print it doublesided? If not, why not?

If you’re senior, specifically identify which documents need to be printed single-sided. Everything else should be printed using as few pages as possible.

Other behaviour change strategies include:

  • Prompts: Change your auto signature to include a comment about the environment (hopefully something more memorable than “Please consider the environment before printing”).
  • Defaults: Ask IT to create printer defaults for different types of printing. One printer option could be “formal” (single or doublesided), one could be “green” (four per page, toner reduced, etc).
  • Norms: If you’re hosting a conference, forum or training, make materials available in electronic form only. This makes materials more easy to search (online or on CD) and puts the responsibility to print on the attendee.
  • Incentives: Conducting a simple audit of a firm is a clear way to identify areas for environmental improvement. Identify high and low consumption teams and reward the great performers.

Reducing paper use is one of the easiest, most inclusive and most visible steps firms can take in improving their environmental performance.


JULIA DEHM is a Young Lawyers’ Section (YLS) member and ROLAND DILLON is YLS Community Issues Committee chair.

1. See http://www.abanet.org/environ/climatechallenge/overview.shtml.

Note: Nothing in this column should be taken to suggest breaching policies relating to the secure disposal of confidential or private documents.

Change tools

When looking at changing behaviour, key tools include:

  • communication;
  • prompts;
  • norms;
  • incentives;
  • commitments.

Fostering Sustainable Behaviour: An introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, McKenzie-Mohr & Smith (1999)

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