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Anyone that has worked a day at a law firm or at a set of chambers will have encountered a windowless room filled with nothing but hundreds upon hundreds of folders bursting at the seams with legal documents likely never to be read again. 

Slowly, Slowly

The legal industry, as I know it, is not the most progressive. And in fact, it’s easy to make a case for it being the most stubborn, traditional and conservative professional fields that exists today. Not exactly a surprise considering how the common law legal system is literally founded on the principle of staying true to precedent, which is basically what old men in robes have said before. Therefore, it is of no surprise that when it comes embracing sustainability and environmental conservation, the vast majority of the legal industry is behind the fold.

However, despite the legal industry’s keenness to remain as dinosaurs while watching their own impending extinction, the development of legal technology has very slowly been catching law firms in its wake. 

The progress of legal tech has exploded into the legal market the last half decade. What it really entails is the digitisation of legal services. There are now websites and apps that cater to anything from providing a marketplace to connect clients with lawyers, guides for clients to conduct legal matters (filling in forms and such) by themselves, electronic discovery (discovery is a procedure where all relevant documents relating to a case must be produced and exchanged with the parties involved), and more. All of these technological developments generally result in a more environmentally friendly approach to business in the legal field, even if law firms and chambers are slow to embrace what’s already there. 

The Legal Industry’s Carbon Footprint

Big law firms in particular have huge carbon footprints. Legal tech in all its forms has helped and can continue to help reduce the impact of law firms on the environment in two major areas—paper use and air travel. Let’s have a look at the environmental impact of a group of large law firms in 2018. All of my data comes from a report by the Legal Sustainability Alliance (‘LSA’), a voluntary reporting mechanism for international and US law firms. Unfortunately, there isn’t any comprehensive data covering all law firms in Hong Kong for example, but the report is shocking nonetheless.

The LSA report has detailed breakdowns of the CO2 emissions of each law firm broken down by category such as electricity, water and waste, however I’m only going to be focusing categories that are most intertwined with the emergence of legal tech. 

Air Travel

Gone are the days where even the lowest ranking middle management executive flew cocooned in the luxury of the business class seat. But globalisation and the internet will inevitably lead law firms to have clients all over the world. Some countries such as Japan, still put a huge premium on the importance of face to face meetings over video communication. As a result, lawyers working for firms with offices around the world may frequently fly back and forth to meet with existing and potential clients. 

In 2018, 191,836 total tonnes of CO2 were produced by the 59 law firms who reported their emissions to the LSA. Some of the law firms’ air travel carbon footprint made up a significant amount of their total carbon output. For example, Herbert Smith Freehills’ air travel footprint was 3226 tonnes of CO2 or 41% of their total emissions, White and Case at 3422 tonnes of CO2 or 59% of their total emissions, and taking the crown—Baker McKenzie at 6916 tonnes of CO2 or 74% of their total emissions

It’s painfully clear that legal tech platforms which supportive interactive collaboration, including document editing and video conferencing can play a role in dramatically curtailing the huge carbon emissions that result from air travel by law firms. 


4073.45 tonnes. That’s how much paper 59 law firms used in 2018. That’s approximately 407 million sheets of A4 paper, or 163 container truckloads of paper by weight. This is merely a small fraction of the law firms that operate in the world. Can you imagine the number of trees saved if half of all the legal documents that need to be drafted, reviewed and filed were electronic? It’s really here that legal tech has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the legal industry. 

Sikhei Leung is a law student and freelance writer. He holds a LL.M. in Human Rights from the School of Oriental and African Studies and a LL.B. from BPP University London. He also has a Psychology degree from Durham University.

This article does not constitute legal advice.

The opinions expressed in the column above represent the author’s own.

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