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The Website Carbon Footprint edition

By now, you are all surely aware that the TBD team and I are card-carrying members of the geekerati. We have an abiding love of data and the interesting and insightful stories it allows us to tell about the legal sector and the wider world.

For instance, were you aware that running a law firm website, or indeed any website, is inherently detrimental to the environment if you don’t put the appropriate mitigation measures in place? It’s a topic that isn’t much discussed or thought about, at least publicly, and yet it matters a great deal if law firms are to meet their Net Zero commitments.

Earlier this year, we caused quite a stir with our first quarterly Web Carbon Footprint Report, which ranks the best- and worst-performing websites operated by the top 200 firms according to their estimated carbon emissions. Without giving too much away, the publication next week of our latest report for Q2 – which you can sign up to receive here – is likely to have the same effect, as some of our industry’s most illustrious names are among the worst offenders when it comes to running an environmentally friendly firm website.

I want to make it clear from the outset that we are not trying to take any specific firm to task; nor are we using our report as a mounting block from which to climb into the saddle of our moral high horse. Far from it, in fact, as we are keenly aware that our own website still leaves room for improvement.

The point is much more to raise awareness of this often-overlooked piece in the Net Zero puzzle, and to give law firms a benchmarking tool so that they can measure their own website’s performance against that of their competitors and feel incentivised to improve their carbon footprint. It’s to everyone’s benefit if they do so.

So for this week’s edition of Si’s Matters, I want to give you an insight into how we compile our Web Carbon Footprint Report, provide some tips on how firms can improve their ranking, and explain why I think this is an important task to accomplish.

A robust and reproducible methodology

As with all our reports, the team and I have put a lot of time, thought and effort into the best methodological approach to take in order to yield useful data from which sound conclusions can be drawn.

To generate our dataset for the Web Carbon Emissions Report, we started by identifying the UK’s top 200 firms by revenue using the most recent rankings table published by The Lawyer. We then input each firm’s main domain homepage into the website carbon calculator, which provides the amount of CO2 produced every time someone visits the domain, as well as an energy efficiency rating running from A+ through to F.

Next, we used to estimate the volumes of traffic that each domain receives per month. This is by no means perfect, as it tends to underestimate the amount of traffic flowing to each website; however, it does have the benefit of applying a standardised formula, so that the margin for error – i.e. the gap between estimated traffic and real-world figures – is also standardised across the various results. And the tool is publicly available, meaning that you can replicate our methodology.

We then multiplied the amount of CO2 produced per visitor by the estimated number of visitors per month, and then multiplied that figure by 12 to get the total website carbon emissions figure per year. Once we established this annual emissions figure, we reduced each score by 25%if the firm is using green energy to supply their web servers.

Lastly, we took the emissions score and multiplied it by the respective firm’s energy rating expressed as a percentage (a sliding scale where A+ = 40%, F = 100%), which also yields a reduction in the final figure for those websites with a better rating. This creates an adjusted overall emissions score that allows for green fuel use and energy efficiency rating.

A question of size?

One of the main problems that we identified in creating our report is that website carbon emissions are inevitably linked to the amount of traffic that the respective website receives. It stands to reason that the larger the firm is, the more traffic its website receives and the bigger its carbon footprint is. In this context, big firms could therefore be described as victims of their own success.

This was one of the main criticisms put to us by web agencies in the wake of the publication of our first Web Carbon Emissions Report: that our methodology inevitably penalises the major players. Never let it be said that our ears are closed to constructive feedback. This time around, we have therefore taken account of this critique by allowing for carbon emissions per employee, without obscuring the fact that the big firms are still, unavoidably, the biggest emitters.

Our Q2 report therefore ranks firms using a combination of the overall emissions score adjusted for green fuel use and energy efficiency rating on the one hand, and the average pollution score per employee on the other hand. We weighted these scores in the ratio of one times adjusted emissions and five times average emissions per employee.

With the former score, we used the ratio of one because the adjusted score is immutable, in the sense that nothing can numerically change or affect it – it is what it is. With the latter score, we use the number five for the very mathematical reason that it creates a stable average: when we group firms by revenues – which serves as a rough proxy for size and web traffic – across the top 200, the average ranking for each group now ranges from 87 to 108, which represents a fair distribution.

The key takeaways

Our ranking of the top 200 firms based on their web carbon footprint is broken down into a total of nine different groups. This allows you to accurately compare your firm to your closest competitors within your respective group. You can also compare yourself with any other firm on the basis of emissions per employee.

However, as useful as it is to compare oneself to one’s competitors and to the industry at large, no firm can afford to take its eye off the prize of reducing its overall emissions. Our worst-performing firm, which shall remain nameless here, is a huge industry player with thousands of employees and an energy efficiency rating of F – they won’t be happy to see themselves at the top of this particular leaderboard. But if this firm were to improve its energy rating to an A+, it would make a huge difference to their overall score.

But how to go about it? The first and easiest win is to use green energy if you aren’t already doing so. Then there are various ways to slim down your website, including using smaller images, which take up less server space and thus require less energy. And you can make sure your website is being provided to users via a content delivery network, which uses servers local to the respective user to deliver the necessary data and thus minimises serve time. Efficiency is the name of the game, in other words.

And this stuff matters. As you can see from my long exposition on the report’s methodology above, I take on board the criticism that our first report disproportionately penalised the biggest firms. But there’s no getting away from the fact that their websites were, and still remain, the biggest polluters, meaning that they disproportionately affect our planet – the ramifications therefore extend way beyond our little corner of the economy. If anything, our report underplays their impact, as estimated website traffic often lags far behind real-world figures.

I think the pushback we received indicates that in future, we will see a paradigm shift in how firms go about building their websites. From our own extensive experience in web development on behalf of law firms, it is the leadership, IT and marketing teams that are predominantly involved in the process at present; however, we are likely to see this expand into a broader group of stakeholders who want to know that the firm is taking positive steps in terms of its carbon footprint. The pressure that will be exerted on this front is only likely to increase with the growing climate emergency.

As a society, we in the UK are now much greener than we used to be, with kilograms of CO2 emissions per citizen having reduced by half since the Nineties. It’s something that this country can justly be proud of. But there is no room for complacency, as any climate scientist will tell you. Given that ESG is such a major and much-publicised part of most firms’ mission statement, it would behove them – and indeed, the rest of us – to get serious about making the industry’s websites greener.

In other news

Summer in the City – the race to the £200k NQ salary…

As reported in The Times last week, there is every likelihood that we will see NQ salary break the £200k mark before the end of the summer, with most Magic Circle firms having recently levelled up to £150k and the big US players Gibson Dunn and Quinn Emanuel offering £180k to their newly qualified lawyers.

…will come at a personal cost to the lawyers receiving it

Another Times article published at the weekend discusses the “Faustian pact” involved when freshly minted lawyers take on the highest-paying roles at the City offices of US firms: work-life balance becomes an alien concept when regularly working 18-hour shifts, with the expectation of being on call 24/7.

Where does it all end?

The salary war has been preoccupying much of the industry commentariat recently, with International issuing an op-ed by Editor-In-Chief Paul Hodkinson arguing that what the industry really needs is a market peak, as the race to ever-bigger NQ salaries isn’t sustainable.

What’s in a law-firm name? A pink slip if you can’t pronounce it

Pity poor Miss Earle, the unsuccessful defendant in an employment tribunal who, as reported by International, was fired from her temporary receptionist role at Kent-based firm Wykeham-Hurford Sheppard & Son because she was unable to correctly pronounce the firm’s name when fielding phone calls.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s edition.


Si Marshall

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