NIB Career Q&A: Carolyn Kaplan, Counsel & Chief Sustainability Officer, Nixon Peabody

Carolyn KaplanCarolyn Kaplan is counsel and Chief Sustainability Officer for Nixon Peabody and will be the keynote speaker at the Net Impact Boston Annual Meeting on November 20th. Here Carolyn tells us more about her career journey, Nixon Peabody’s approach to sustainability, and the importance of collaboration to help us transition to a more sustainable world.

How did you first become interested in sustainability?

I can’t pinpoint my interest in sustainability to any specific event, but my early experiences likely influenced my personal and career choices later in life. My grandfather was an upholsterer who recycled sawdust and our broken toys to make art. When we redecorated, we didn’t buy brand new furniture; we simply reupholstered our old couches and chairs. My Mom served on the town environment board. In elementary school, our class watched the movie The Lorax. Years later, while a senior in college, I happened to see The Lorax again and decided to enroll in a course called “Law, Science & Public Values.” The class discussions were incredibly provocative, and led me to work at an environmental consulting firm in Washington, DC. A few years later, I applied to law school to focus on environmental issues.

At what point did sustainability start to become a part of your role as an attorney and what experience or skills helped you make this happen?

As an attorney in our firm’s Energy and Environmental practice, sustainability has always been part of my role at the firm. But it took a new direction in 2007 when I was asked to lead our firmwide sustainability initiative, which we call Legally Green®. My years of practice as an attorney at the firm was key to my appointment, as it provided me with a strong understanding of the firm’s operation, culture, and business. I was recognized as someone having the passion, substantive knowledge, and leadership skills necessary to serve as an internal champion for environmental causes. And my professional skills enable me to effectively engage firm attorneys and clients around legal issues relating to sustainability.

Can you tell a little about Nixon Peabody’s unique approach to sustainability?

Across the firm, we have implemented a variety of initiatives such as those relating to pro bono, diversity and professional growth. Our Legally Green initiative complements those programs, taking a holistic approach to environmental issues. We sometimes refer to Legally Green in terms of three commitments for which we are all responsible.

First, we engage our personnel at all levels and across functions, demonstrating that sustainability is relevant to everyone at the firm, whether their role is operational, administrative, or legal. This team approach helps us to reduce our environmental impact and identify opportunities for innovation. Second, we engage our community through partnerships and knowledge sharing, working cooperatively to solve social and environmental challenges. Collaboration with local, national, and global leaders is a key component of our initiative. And, finally, we provide integrated services to help our clients deliver sustainable technologies, products, and solutions. By counseling clients in areas such as sustainable infrastructure, renewable energy tax credits, and supply chain management we leverage our experience to make an even greater positive impact. Significantly, our internal experience helps to inform our legal practice, building an even stronger business case for a sustainability strategy.

What’s the most interesting/most fun/most challenging aspect of your job?

My work brings me in touch with some of the most passionate and committed people on the planet. Every day, I have an opportunity to work with brilliant and engaging leaders from industry, government, and not-for-profit organizations, all of whom are driving positive change. They don’t all have lofty titles and many of them are simply trying to improve their own corner of the world. Sometimes I find that those worlds collide. The mother of one of my daughter’s classmates serves on the board of a conservation organization. The usher at my house of worship is advocating for legislation that supports green infrastructure. A commuter who rides the ferry to work with me builds sustainability into his construction projects. My colleague’s neighbor is responsible for the global corporate citizenship program at a multi-national corporation. By peeling away the onion, we discover that we are each using our unique talents to collectively work towards the same goal – a more sustainable world. That is why there is so much value in collaboration.

What advice would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in sustainability?

Your dream job may not have the title “sustainability director” yet you can still be equally, if not more, effective. You can be a doctor and pursue a career in sustainability. You can be an artist. You can be an engineer. Rather than fill the world with sustainability directors, let’s find ways to make sustainability a central tenet for every industry, every profession.

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