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Solo Ignored Naysayers and Turned His Practice Focus Green

Posted Sep 28, 2010 9:00 AM CDT
By Terry Carter

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Stuart Kaplow
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In late 2005, some of Stuart Kaplow’s friends tried to talk him out of changing his 20-year law practice in real-estate development so radically that it would be doomed. And they probably were right—except the practice area changed.Rather than disappear down the dark hole of irrelevance, Kaplow, a solo practitioner in Towson, Md., the historic Baltimore suburb, quickly found himself in the spotlight as a leader in an emerging practice area: green building and sustainable business.

Examples: As Wal-Mart pressured its suppliers to go green, a Google search quickly found Kaplow for a lot of companies and lawyers representing them. And when the federal Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidelines for public companies to disclose legal or business impacts from climate change, Googling again tagged Kaplow for those seeking guidance.

More often than not he has to begin by defining terms. The practice area—the regulations, the statutes, the science itself—is that new.

“To be blunt, the majority of businesses we work with are at the first step, trying to understand what a carbon footprint is,” says Kaplow, who almost always says “we” rather than “I” when talking about his solo practice. But then, he often teams with other lawyers as well as other professionals such as architects, builders and scientists.

Kaplow began practicing law in 1985 in Baltimore, spending time at two firms of more than 125 lawyers, doing all manner of real-estate development work—zoning, subdivisions, wetland permits—heavily weighted to environmental issues related to land use and usually working against the environment.

In 1997 he went out on his own. In late 2005, at age 45 and itching for validation other than a very successful practice, Kaplow climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. On the trek he read Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

But “snows” is a misnomer. They are, or were, fast-disappearing glaciers. Viewing the world from a height where you can see the Earth’s curvature as well as the diminished glaciers below changed Kaplow. His old approach to land development quickly melted away.

“I wish I could claim I was a visionary and saw it coming,” says Kaplow, who found himself an outlier in the law. “But I just made a personal decision.”

Yet he has influenced other lawyers. Claire Buchner started out in 2000 as a commercial litigator handling construction defect cases. After hearing Kaplow speak at a symposium in 2007, she left a firm and went solo.

“I became passionate about green building and sustainability, and unenthused by old-fashioned litigation” says Buchner, who is in Annapolis, Md., and works some matters with Kaplow. “I drank the Kool-Aid.”

When Kaplow made the big change, real estate was booming and green meant money more than it did environmental concern. But that same year the nation’s biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, announced energy efficiency initiatives; in 2007 the company asked its then-60,000 suppliers to measure their carbon footprints and shrink them; this year it asked its 100,000 suppliers to find ways by 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of removing 3.8 million cars from the roads for a year.

Those signals from the corporate Bigfoot sent untold numbers of companies scrambling to measure their own carbon footprints and then change them.

Kaplow had all along been writing, speaking and joining industry efforts as part of his newfound zeal for things green. The efforts weren’t intended as marketing, but they proved renewable and redoubled resources for just that.

For many years he snail-mailed a newsletter on real estate law, sending out 82 hard copies to clients and other lawyers before going electronic in 2001. He restarted with 277 e-mail addresses, now grown to more than 3,700. And the readership apparently is much larger: About 80 percent of the resulting inquiries are from people who received copies passed along from others.

Kaplow publishes articles regularly on his website, which, though not by design, “has become my No. 1 marketing tool.”

In February he retooled some earlier scholarly work for a website article about recent SEC guidelines for companies to provide analysis of climate change’s impact on their businesses. “I wrote it because it was new and exciting to me,” Kaplow says. “I had no idea it was going to generate so much work.”

Kaplow joined the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit whose members are mostly in the building industry and which has become the foremost third-party authority for certifying buildings with its LEED ratings (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). He is chairman of USGBC Maryland.

In 2009, Kaplow wrote a law review article that described green building, how energy efficiencies are gained and money saved, government incentives and so on. It amounted to a how-to manual for businesses needing help to go green, whatever their motivation—as well as how to find Kaplow.

Kaplow left a lot of clients behind when his practice changed. “And now, just five years later, a lot of the biggest ones have come back,” he says. “They’re doing green building, and we’re back together.”

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