Not every lawyer can work for Earthjustice or the Western Resource Advocates. In fact, very few do. But lawyers can still play an important role in advancing sustainability and making a difference in our communities while enriching our professional lives. There are two simple reasons lawyers should step up and lead the way: (1) we can; and (2) we’ll be happier if we do.
Lawyers have an outsized presence in leadership roles. In addition to the fact that an entire branch of government is constitutionally reserved for lawyers, the other branches are dominated by them, too. The majority of American presidents have been lawyers. Almost half of Congress is made up of lawyers (and some would argue that is part of the problem…although I don’t agree). Administrative agencies at every level of government are full of attorneys. And that doesn’t even count how many governors, state legislators, mayors, and other elected officials are members of the bar (not to mention heads of corporations, non-profits, and other institutions).
Lawyers are trusted advisors whose analytical skills and judgment are valued by virtually all types of organizations and governmental entities. For that reason, they have played important leadership roles at many inflection points in history. Lawyers have led our country through critical moments, from Abraham Lincoln guiding us through the Civil War, to Thurgood Marshall’s advancement of the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the central role of law to our form of government, lawyers often are in a position to bring important leadership to an issue —whether they do so effectively or not.
With the cynical, dysfunctional politics of our time, we’re experiencing a real lack of leadership at every level of our society. Young people, in particular, are hungry for something more, abandoning traditional institutions in droves and looking for ways to integrate their personal values with their career goals.
Young lawyers specifically are often emotionally and ethically disconnected from their chosen profession. Many (including me years ago) entered the profession because of a desire to use law—an instrument of justice, of fairness, even (dare we say it) of change—to make a difference in the world. Instead of justice, however, many of us have discovered a profession that can seem more focused on billable hours than bettering society, where technocratic skills may be valued more than the moral compass and ethical judgments that guide the exercise of those legal skills, and where rainmaking ability threatens to become a substitute for leadership and civic responsibility.
The University of Michigan Law School has conducted a 40-year study of satisfaction in the practice of law, annually surveying its graduates in the public and private sector. There are numerous interesting findings from the study, but one of the main takeaways is that the two most important factors in overall job satisfaction are: (1) satisfaction with relationships with co-workers and superiors, and (2) satisfaction with the value of their work to society.
Consider those findings for a moment: interpersonal relationships and serving the good of society are more important to overall job satisfaction than power, money, prestige, and even work–life balance.
The Colorado Bar’s Environmental Sustainability Program can be an important part of improving the legal profession and job satisfaction. In addition to helping lawyers understand how their actions relate to sustainability and some of the ways they can tread more lightly on the planet, these sustainability programs are inherently team-building in a positive way. They help integrate people’s personal values with their professional lives, and they can provide a way for attorneys to serve the good of society and make the world a better place by incorporating sustainability into all aspects of life (including work).
Lawyers are the people who can think more broadly about sustainability, since it’s not just about recycling and changing light bulbs (although that’s an important start). Lawyers are often in roles to influence others, to demonstrate civic responsibility, and to become leaders in their communities. In doing so, they have the power to lead and advise others in ways that can make a much bigger difference.
The Environmental Sustainability Program (ESP) is a great first step. Making law firms and the practice of law more environmentally sustainable is critically important. But leadership requires more:
- Don’t be afraid to talk about your vision.
- Imagine what should be, and strive toward it.
- The change may be incremental, but the goals should be big.
- Be a responsible citizen. Your influence extends beyond your firm.
- Lead by example both at work and at home.
- Engage with your community in new and creative ways.
- Be a thought leader.
- Educate others about the importance of sustainability.
- Look for new and better ways of incorporating sustainability into your operations and practice.
- Look for ways to expand the reach of ESP into the legal community and beyond, to other industries and sectors of the economy.
- Finally, find ways of integrating sustainability principles into your advice and counsel.
- The very best lawyers help their clients solve problems in ways that also advance the public interest. So be creative in looking for ways to help your clients be responsible citizens as well.
Here’s the bottom line: Finding ways of making the world a better place by integrating our personal values—in this case, sustainability—into the legal profession will ultimately make us much happier—and better—lawyers.
By Susan D. Daggett, the Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. She teaches in the area of land use and sustainability. She practiced natural resources and environmental law for a decade at Earthjustice, and served as a founding member of Greenprint Denver.