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Henry Davis York: Lawyers think sustainably. Imagine that.

By William D Alessandro on December 16, 2009 at 09:57am.


Law partners around the world rarely see any purpose in monitoring sustainability performance at their firms.  But Henry Davis York (HDY) in Sydney, Australia, does, and with obvious conviction. 

HDY won awards in a regional contest in 2008 for its first sustainability report titled ‘Imagine’.  Imagine2 is more of the same.  The firm uses stakeholder engagement and a materiality process to identify its key issues.  It then explains how sustainability is embedded in its activities.

HDY is one of the oldest legal practices in Australia.  Its reputation locally is for work on fund management and superannuation, and the representation of government agencies. 

HDY really shines when counselling on matters of commercial distress.   The firm ranks in the top tier for insolvency and restructuring as rated by Euromoney’s International Financial Law Review.  In the difficult economy, revenue was AUS $85 million (€53 million), up 15% from fiscal year 2008.  Imagine2 covers the 12-month period of growth ending 30 June 2009.

An important client of HDY is Westpac, the first company founded in Australia in 1817.  Today the banking group is a recognised leader in the financial sector on monitoring social, ethical, and environmental performance.  In 2007 as part of its business strategy, Westpac asked HDY to complete a sustainable supply chain management questionnaire.  HDY’s Chief Operating Officer Kelvin O’Connor gets credit for moving forcefully on the recommendations stemming from the audit for Westpac and for pushing to make the information public.

HDY follows the guidelines from the Global Reporting Initiative at the C+ application level.  The report starts with a section on commitments and challenges.  In tabular form, past objectives are matched against outcomes, and goals are stated along with specific commitments.  Throughout the report, HDY is frank about where it needs to improve. 

The report delivers a large amount of information about the firm’s workforce, such as gender ratios and the balance of wellbeing and work life.  On environmental matters, HDY tracks energy use, and water and paper consumption.  Pro bono issues account for nearly all the social indicators. 

Highlights of the data collection effort include a breakdown on carbon emissions by amounts attributed to electricity use, flights, taxis, freight, and waste to landfill.  Bar graphs show at a glance increases and decreases in absolute percentages and also normalised against revenue.

Thinking sustainably is in its infancy among law firms.  There is boundless room to mature and refine ideas.

For example, HDY has now signed on to a national, pro bono participation target of 35 hours per lawyer per year.  HDY reports that it achieved an average of 29 hours per lawyer per year in FY ‘09. 

Not explained is that the National Pro Bono Resource Centre at the University of New South Wales established the 35-hour target as a minimum expectation.  The centre says that lawyers who have signed on averaged 41.9 hours of pro bono work during the past fiscal year.  The seven signatory firms with more than 100 lawyers who met the target actually averaged 45.2 hours per lawyer per annum.  HDY employs more than 200 attorneys.

Confounding the situation, the US model rule of professional conduct urges all lawyers to aspire to 50 hours of pro bono service annually.  HDY’s independent auditors go a step further.  They recommend measuring pro bono programs based on their impacts, not just the hours contributed per lawyer.

Complicating factors also affect other indicators.  The time to get a grip on the right metrics is now, before sustainability reporting catches on.


“Imagine how things could change if from time to time we stood in each other’s shoes,” says HDY’s COO Kelvin O’Connor in the first paragraph of the introduction.  His imperative is embodied by no less than 14 pages of black-and-white images of shoes.  The thematic element of shod feet and footgear add up to 20% of the report. 

Two schools of thought are in play.   One holds that design must never compete with content like this.  The other unleashes imagery to create an enduring impression.   Either way, HDY’s report puts its best foot forward in print, not in electronic form.  The layout is stylish and clean, the word count is low, and the text is surrounded by plenty of white space.   Imagine2 gets straight to the point, rather like a legal brief.  No extraneous information is to be found therein.


Net Balance Management Group provides the independent review of HDY’s 2009 report in accordance with the AA1000AS assurance standard.  All the elements are included that CorporateRegister.com. identifies in its landmark study ‘Assure View’ to make a meaningful assurance statement.

The auditors describe the methods they use.   The findings and conclusions are robust — not cursory.   The assessment principles deal with inclusivity (of stakeholders’ opinions ), materiality (of information), and responsiveness (to stakeholders’ concerns).   The assurance statement is on a par with the report itself and warrants as close a reading.

Net Balance also performs an independent compliance check against the GRI guidelines.


1. The GRI index is three pages long.  Scrolling to find the content in the report is a chore.  The items on the index could be hot-linked to the corresponding spot on the page in the PDF version.   
2.  Explain the benchmarks that apply in the legal profession.  Lacking more details, context is missing.  Is a lost time frequency rate of 5.04 exemplary?  Is 16% staff turnover good?  Are 12,129 reams of paper a lot or a little for 200 attorneys?
3. Use a wider range of colours or some other graphic device to segment data on bar graphs.  The grey tones are too close together for comfort and clarity.  

William D’Alessandro is president of Victor House News Co., an independent agency reporting on law and the environment for trade publications and executive newsletters.  He also edits Crosslands Bulletin covering strategic corporate environmental management and sustainability issues.