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Blake Christian
Blake Christian
Professional Service Firms Go Green

Nine ways show you how to make a difference.

March 25, 2010
by Blake Christian, CPA, MBT

Much of the press on the greening of America is focused on how manufacturers, processors and transportation companies have modified their processes in order to minimize their carbon footprints.

Less focus has been directed at how service firms, such as CPAs and attorneys, have implemented procedures to reduce energy consumption and pollution output. Many of these initiatives are bottom-up programs driven by the younger staff and management team.

Over the past several years, service businesses have also been focusing on ways to not only be socially responsible, but also reduce their operating costs. While the recent economic downturn may have pushed off certain decisions such as investing in more energy efficient lighting or installing solar panels, other moves to reduce power consumption and increase recycling can have an immediate and favorable impact on the bottom line.

Adoption of paperless procedures offers a number of environmental benefits, including reduction in paper use, reduced commuting and less storage costs. Mike McKeever, a commercial real estate tenant representative with UGL-Equis in Los Angeles, has assisted a number of professional service firms with their space planning and has a number of success stories in which McKeever materially reduced square-footage needs by getting the service firms to accelerate their paperless conversions; thereby materially reducing library and file-room footprints and reducing long-term occupancy costs. In addition to the cost savings, less square-footage-per-employee also translates into less energy consumption.

In general, law firms were a bit quicker than CPA firms to move towards a paperless environment and today most law practices have adopted paperless processes for a large percentage of their practices. While the Big 4 were early adopters, most other CPA firms’ success in going paperless was a bit spotty. Many firms, including ours, performed beta testing in certain divisions or offices and some departments and offices successfully converted while others deferred the conversion for a year or two.

Due to the logistical challenges of coordinating fieldwork at client locations and the advantages of sharing staff and managers in seven different offices, HCVT’s audit department completed their firm-wide adoption of paperless procures for all attest projects back in 2007. Our business management department also adopted earlier than other departments due to heavy transaction volume and the need to access client data very frequently.

While our tax department is fairly integrated with both the audit and business management departments with respect to workpaper-sharing as a starting point for tax return preparation, due to more autonomous office practices, our timetable for Tax Department conversions varied by office, with the earliest starting in 2004 (and full adoption by 2006) and some offices still in the process of completing their conversions.

Mandatory federal and state e-filing requirements have also forced all firms to become more paperless. Ultimately, the success of such paperless conversions is dependent upon having specific “champions” at the partner, manager and staff level to push through the implementation (sometimes using the carrot and often using a stick) and train the other staff.

While paperless adoption on current projects is commonplace, personal service firms are a bit less inclined to go back and scan older documents. Many firms simply wait to destroy them until their file retention policy mandates hardcopy destruction. As indicated earlier, accelerated scanning and destroying the hardcopies can generate significant rent and storage savings and also allows more efficient access to historical documents.

Useful Web sites Impacting Your Firm’s Green Initiatives
     
  Conserve a Tree
  The Need
  Stop Waste
  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency
  Green CPA
     

Less common, but still representing “low hanging fruit” in the environmental arena, other CPA firms are making eco-contributions. Following are nine other ways professional service firms are going green:

  1. Analyzing client locations and employee residential dispersion and consolidating or opening new offices in the most central location to minimize commuting times;
  2. Lighting costs can often represent up to 25 percent of office energy costs. Changing to more efficient lighting can reduce energy consumption and also reduce eye strain on the employees. Additional measures, include the use of motion detectors to automatically shut off lights when an office is not in use;
  3. Keesal, Young and Logan, a Long Beach, Calif.-based law firm with four offices on the west coast sponsors an “urban forestation” project in downtown Long Beach and in 2009 provided every employee an “Earth Kit” that included supplies and information that help them extend the firm’s commitment to the planet to each of their homes;
  4. Elimination of paper/plastic cups and disposable water bottles and adoption of ceramic cups for employees and guests. Developing recycling programs for bottles, cans, paper and local school donation programs for older computers/printers;
  5. Conversion to web-based research services and elimination of all or most, printed services. This can save paper, as well as reduce updating costs associated with print services;
  6. Providing employees with public transportation passes, carpool incentives, subsidies to purchase hybrids or alternative fuel vehicles (that may also offer employees access to time-saving high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) freeway lanes) and even tax-advantaged bicycle subsidies;
  7. Encourage and financially support employee participation in various green initiative programs such as beach or lake clean-up, roadway clean-up, bike-to-work and other programs;
  8. Either retrofitting current space for increased energy efficiency or moving to new space in a LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building; and
  9. Contracting with suppliers and service providers who are eco-friendly.

Firms that practice what they preach can also take this knowledge and build a niche practice in assisting clients in reducing energy consumption and/or claiming the wide variety of federal, state and local green tax incentives. For example see: “Tax Incentives Energized.”

Conclusion

With younger, more environmentally focused, employees joining professional service firms and pushing for green practices, there will likely be increasing adoption of eco-friendly practices within these firms.

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Blake Christian, CPA, MBT is a tax partner in the Long Beach office of Holthouse Carlin & Van Trigt LLP, CPAs and is co-founder of National Tax Credit Group, LLC. For more information, contact Christian at (562) 216-1800 or see www.blakechristian.com.