May 09, 2016

Practicing Environmental Law: Evolution and Expertise

By Hannah Hayes

While conservation and pollution concerns in the United States go back centuries—the first national park was established in 1872—the modern-day environmental movement could be said to have started in 1970 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established and Americans celebrated Earth Day for the first time. Postwar urban expansion and a growing awareness of pollution; the fallout from nuclear testing; and Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic book, Silent Spring, were all precursors to growing concerns about the environment.

For lawyers practicing environmental law, these events brought about challenges and opportunities. “It’s no surprise that environmental law as a practice group is on the rise in importance and complexity,” says Peter Zeughauser, a legal analyst and management consultant based in Newport Beach, California. Zeughauser emphasizes that specialization is “the key to success,” whether in a local or international practice.

Across the country, land use, changing regulations, and compliance issues impact businesses in almost any sector.

“Anyone who is making something, growing something, digging something out of the ground probably needs to be thinking of the environmental aspects,” says Catherine Karen, a lawyer at the Washington, D.C.–based offices of Sidley Austin LLP, who counsels clients in the energy sector, oil and gas manufacturing, and domestic timber.

The Local Angle

For small to midsize firms with a focus on local clients, land use and decades-old contamination issues provide the bulk of their work.

In the tiny town of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, local firm Brown & Winters specializes in California environmental law, including water quality, contaminated soil, hazardous substance cleanup, and due diligence. A unique service provided by partner Wentzelee Botha is insurance archaeology and the procurement of historic policies that can cover legal and cleanup expenses from historic toxic waste release.

“Most of our clients are public entities that may have discarded their old policies,” Botha says. “But if you have contamination that occurred in the 1960s and you had a policy in effect then, that policy is very viable when it comes to cleanup.”

Through the years pollution issues have meant consistent work for environmental lawyers, but the precise type of work has changed, says Janice Weis, associate dean and director of the Environmental & Natural Resources Law Program at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. “During the 1980s, the cleanup of sites on the Superfund list had lawyers negotiating various settlements,” Weis notes. “More recently, the focus has been on ‘brownfields,’ or areas that don’t fall into the worst category of cleanup needs.”

Carrie Wilson, also of Brown & Winters, assists clients with compliance and hazardous substance cleanup. As an engineer, Wilson oversaw work on the cleanup of the Savannah River nuclear site near Aiken, South Carolina, before turning to environmental law. “It’s not just in the petrol and chemical fields—there’s pollution from almost any industry across the country,” she explains. “Even when companies thought they were meeting requirements, the regulations changed.”

As larger firms expanded their practice, boutique firms have also grown, such as the Atlanta, Georgia, firm of Kazmarek Mowrey Cloud Laseter LLP. Founding partner Carol Geiger began her career working on mergers and acquisitions at Long Aldridge & Norman LLP, where she did research on environmental risks and liabilities. “In the late ’80s, companies realized they might be held liable for what they acquired, so it called for due diligence,” she says.

Long Aldridge & Norman eventually developed an environmental practice, pulling Geiger into it.

Geiger left the firm in 2008 to form a boutique law firm with an environmental focus. “By then it had become a mature market as companies were hiring their own directors of environmental, health, and safety, which meant they wanted more high-level people as counsel.”

Today, Kazmarek Mowrey Cloud Laseter has 16 lawyers with offices in three cities. In addition to doing environmental due diligence for lenders or financial institutions, the firm is nationally recognized in the fields of environmental, toxic tort, energy, climate, and carbon management law.

Katherine Meyer left the Washington, D.C., public interest firm of Harmon Curran and Gallagher, where she was a partner practicing environmental law. In 1993, she and her husband formed Meyer Glitzenstein and Eubanks LLP, also in D.C., with a focus on wildlife and environmental protection, as well as consumer protection and open government issues.

The cases range from wild horse preservation to whaling permits. “There are not many like us in the country,” Meyer notes, “and it can be a challenge with resources when representing small grassroots organizations.”

Big Law, Big Companies, and Government

Big law firms are also expanding their environmental practice area. Zeughauser points out that climate change initiatives have had a vast impact on regulations around the globe and need to be considered by companies with cross-border practices.

Holland & Hart LLP has one of the largest environmental law practices in the country, with more than 110 lawyers dispersed throughout offices across the country. Kelly Johnson, based in Washington, D.C., leads the firm’s Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Practice Group and gives strategic advice to clients on federal legislative and regulatory issues. Johnson came to Holland & Hart from the U.S. Department of Justice, where, as a deputy assistant attorney, she oversaw 450 lawyers.

Johnson agrees that the practice has changed over the last 25 years. “It was still a relatively new field when I started practicing in 1990,” she says. “There was a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity over EPA regulations. Companies did not have their own internal environmental departments attached to operations like they do today.”

Noble Energy, a Fortune 500 oil and natural gas exploration and production company, has in-house counsel but frequently uses outside counsel.  “I primarily rely on two law firms to assist my practice.  I focus on law firms that have a strong natural resource practice that not only understand the oil and gas industry but can apply their expertise in environmental law to oil and gas issues,” says Denee DiLuigi, Noble’s environmental counsel.

In-house counsel often seek the expertise provided by firms with sophisticated environmental law departments because, as Johnson points out, things are constantly evolving. She points to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act as particularly complicated and constantly changing.

Expanding Field, Expanding Choices

In 1989, when Jennifer Gleason decided she wanted to work in environmental law, she had very few choices. Now a staff attorney at the Eugene, Oregon–based nonprofit Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), she recalls, “There were about three schools that had more than one class in environmental law.”

She opted for the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene because it had a public interest litigation section and was one of the few schools offering a certificate in natural resources law.

Today, potential lawyers can choose from a JD, an LLM, or even a doctor of juridical science (SJD) in environmental law in schools across the country. Further, environmental law attracts scientists, engineers, passionate advocates of the environment, and legal minds interested in government and international law.

Sandra Hirotsu went straight into civil defense litigation after graduating from the University of California Hastings College of Law in 1992. After 10 years of doing workers’ compensation defense, Hirotsu enrolled in the LLM program at Lewis & Clark. “I could have tried to start off at a different firm but wanted to get a better legal foundation.”

Today, Hirotsu serves on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an appointed body based in Portland, Oregon, that develops energy and environmental policy in four northwestern states.

Wilson of Brown & Winters was an engineer for 15 years before enrolling in law school, and both Botha and DiLuigi have a background in marine biology. Karen of Sidley Austin studied international trade.

“If someone told me 20 years ago I’d be doing environmental law, I would have laughed out loud,” says Karen, who was offered a job by the Bush administration in the EPA.

While she was interested in working on Capitol Hill, Karen had little environmental law experience. She left as one of the two top advisors to the EPA administrators on legislative affairs and went on to represent the timber industry before joining Sidley Austin, where she provides strategic planning and advocates for clients on Capitol Hill.

A Forward-Looking Field

According to Robert Denney, founder of the strategic planning and consulting group Robert Denney Associates in Paoli, Pennsylvania, environmental law will continue to expand thanks to the growing interest in sustainability and environmental regulation.

Oil shale extraction and fracking, as well as strong storm cycles in coastal areas, could also impact future growth. Incentives for alternative energy are expected to continue.

Environmental law continues to attract more women to the field. “In the early ’90s I’d walk into a room and consciously count, and I’d be one woman to maybe 25 men,” says DiLuigi, who at the time was working in the male-dominated petrochemical industry. “Now, it’s more like three to four women for every 10 men.”