Sustainability and the Oregon Legal Profession

Sustainable development is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

– Our Common Future (1987)

By Dick Roy

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, it is valuable to explore what role the Oregon legal profession plays in advancing the societal goal of sustainable development, and why it has been so difficult to define a meaningful role.

The impetus for the sustainability movement is the widespread degradation of the natural world.  Although humans have been altering nature for thousands of years, economic development since World War II has greatly accelerated human impact. By the late 1950s an alarmed Congress enacted early legislation to rein in widespread use of persistent toxics and to begin to draw the curtain on the “golden age of pesticides.” In 1962, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was a “wake-up call” to the American public about the pernicious impact of toxics, and the modern environmental movement was born. Emerging under the more visible civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, the environmental movement sprang dramatically to life with the original Earth Day—April 22, 1970.

In response to federal and state environmental legislation, the discipline of environmental law emerged in the 1970s. By the early 1980s law firms were organizing practice groups for compliance and litigation related to the environment and the increasing concern about hazardous waste.

But reliance on environmental regulation lost its allure in the 1980s, a decade when the industry mantra of “no more command and control” took hold, even as ecological degradation was marching relentlessly on and assuming a global dimension. By late in that decade, it was clear that climate change and fresh water shortages were on the horizon. The oceans were threatened by pollution and overharvesting.  Biodiversity and topsoil were being lost. The trends and momentum of ecological degradation did not bode well for our children and yet unborn grandchildren.

To rekindle public passion about environmental protection, Dennis Hayes, the student organizer of Earth Day 1970, took the lead to organize Earth Day International 1990—purported to be the largest worldwide demonstration ever held. The tremendous energy from that event gave birth to the modern sustainability movement, with a focus on voluntary actions to adopt personal and business practices to protect the Earth. At the same time, federal legislation took a sharp turn in the direction of deregulation, reversing the regulatory climate of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Because the goal of sustainability lacked a legal regulatory hook, our profession was caught off guard with no apparent role to play as the sustainability movement took hold in the 1990s. In Oregon, privately held businesses with progressive senior management, like The Collins Companies and Norm Thompson, took the lead to weave sustainability deeply into the cultures of their organizations. Following their leadership, the State of Oregon and many municipalities, such as the City of Portland, followed. With the introduction of LEED certification for green buildings and the growing public passion for locally grown and organic food, the goal of sustainability became woven deeply into the fabric of our state and major city.

In late 2005, I was concerned that our profession was standing at the sidelines of a vibrant sustainability movement. To explore this concern, in early 2006 I hosted three focus groups with over 40 lawyers participating.  With their enthusiastic support, ten of us formed Oregon Lawyers for a Sustainable Future (OLSF) as a project of the Center for Earth Leadership—a nonprofit that my wife Jeanne and I formed. As an early initiative, in the fall of 2006, I organized a lunch with the Board of Governors (BOG) to discuss what role the Oregon State Bar might play in the arena of sustainability. At that time the BOG did not see an appropriate role for it to play.

To advance sustainability, OLSF conducted 20 CLE programs, organized more intensive Earth Leadership seminars for groups of 12 lawyers, created sustainable law office policies, drafted legislation to amend the Oregon Business Corporation Act, and conducted a statewide study on the interface between sustainability and the Oregon legal profession.  At the same time, larger law firms in Portland were adopting sustainability policies, the three law schools were organizing curriculum and programs around sustainability, and the Environment and Natural Resources Section was working with the Bar office to assess the Bar’s carbon footprint. And, in 2008, the OSB Leadership College added a sustainability section to the curriculum.

In 2009, the BOG took steps to weave sustainability into the structure of the Bar, commissioning the “Task Force on Sustainability” to make recommendations relating to sustainability. The Task Force, made up of 15 bar members, bar staff, and a BOG member, met several times and prepared a comprehensive report, which contained five recommendations, including creating a new bar section, drafting and adopting a sustainability bylaw, and adopting a sustainability policy. The report was presented in October 2009, and the BOG immediately adopted the bylaw and authorized formation of the Sustainable Future Section: (Article 26).

Looking ahead, the Oregon legal profession is clearly at the front of the emerging national movement for the legal profession to find a meaningful role to play. We have the most educated and concerned Bar in the nation on sustainability, law offices that are nationally recognized for sustainability policies and practices, three law schools actively focused in different ways on sustainability, a bar association with a commitment to sustainability, and the new Sustainable Future Section to advance understanding of this important societal goal.

Having said that, our ultimate role in the sustainability movement is not yet defined, and opportunities abound for individual lawyers, law offices, and groups of lawyers to be pioneers in crafting meaningful ways to contribute. Because lawyers are industrious and creative, we have a much greater role to play in the societal struggle to create a sustainable future.

practicing corporate law at Stoel Rives for 23 years, in 1993 Dick Roy left his firm to join his wife Jeanne as a full-time volunteer in the emergent sustainability movement. Together they have founded the Center for Earth Leadership, the Natural Step Network, and the Northwest Earth Institute—three Portland-based nonprofits.

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