March 01, 2014

Views from the Chair: Section continues tradition of high-quality educational programs

William L. Penny

As I have often stated, my introduction to the Section was at an Annual Conference on Environmental Law at Keystone, Colorado (now called the Spring Conference and no longer at that location). I will never forget the outstanding quality of that program, with nationally known environmental attorneys from private practice, government, academia, and nongovernment organizations and the unparalleled networking opportunities. That tradition of excellence continues, expanding and changing to meet the needs of Section members. The Section now hosts three major conferences, a policy symposium, a special practice area conference, regional conferences, webinars, and committee conference calls.

The Section’s three major conferences are the Spring Conference, Water Law Conference, and Fall Conference. The Spring Conference began 43 years ago in 1971 when environmental law was in its early days, and the Section was known as the Section of Natural Resources Law. The conference began with just a few attorneys in a small conference room in Denver but rapidly grew and expanded and moved to the newly built Keystone Resort in Keystone, Colorado. Three years ago, the Section moved the Spring Conference to Salt Lake City where the 43rd Spring Conference will be held March 20–22, 2014. Next year the conference location will begin rotating among selected cities.

The first Water Law Conference was held in 1982 and for many years focused primarily on western water resource issues. Water law has been expanding its breadth to include more global water issues, such as water quality and eastern water issues. To embrace that change the conference moved last year from its historic home in San Diego to Las Vegas, where it will be held again this coming June and then rotated among selected cities.

The first Fall Conference was held in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1992. The Fall Conference took advantage of the then-meteoric interest in environmental law as well as the need to incorporate energy and resource programming. This broad CLE offering was combined with the Fall Council Meeting and various committee and Section leadership activities. The conference’s location has since rotated throughout the country—usually alternating between the western, middle, and eastern United States, being held in the Baltimore/DC metro area every post-election year.

Quite a bit of work goes into developing our major conferences, and I thought I would provide an “inside” view of how they are developed.

The Conference Optimization Committee, led a few years ago by Channing Martin, determined that Fall Conference attendance varied significantly based on the city selected. A process was therefore put into place to select more popular locations for all of our conferences. The Section’s education officer, Peter Wright, with Sean Dixon, Section staff, and others developed a survey that asked our members where they wanted the Section to meet for the Spring, Water, and Fall conferences, as well as what factors influenced their decision to attend a Section conference.

You spoke and we listened. Based on the responses to our Location and Branding Survey, the Section, beginning in 2015, will be rotating conference locations among eight cities that were favored by our members. In 2015, the Spring Conference will be in San Francisco, the Water Law Conference in Denver, and the Fall Conference in Chicago. The 2015 Spring Conference will be particularly special as it will be planned and coordinated with the 22 other ABA sections, divisions, and forums that our Section is charged to coordinate with on environmental matters.

Programming for our major conferences is a very detailed, painstaking process. The Section chair-elect appoints a planning committee chair for each conference that will be held during his/her term. The planning committee chair then selects committee members, subject to the Section chair elect’s approval. A planning committee usually meets in person and then holds regular conference calls during the year to identify session topics, speakers, sponsors, and networking activities. Fawziah Bajwa, our Section’s assistant director—with considerable assistance of Julie McCullough, our program assistant—puts her meeting planning expertise to work before and during our conferences to make them run smoothly and cost effectively, addressing a myriad of issues, some visible and many behind the scenes.

For many years, the Section’s substantive committees were requested to propose detailed session topics for the Spring and Fall conference planning committees’ evaluation. However, this process was frustrating for all parties as it generated many more topics than a single conference could accommodate. In some cases, suggestions for popular topics were not submitted at all, and in others the topics proposed were so narrow that they were unlikely to draw a large audience. As a result, the planning committees combined topics, reworked topics, or came up with new topics, and thus, very few topics were selected as submitted.

The Education Service Group responded to the frustration and disappointment with the old process, introducing a new model for the Spring and Fall conferences (the Water Law Conference has always used the “new” model for its planning). The planning chair will schedule a conference call with substantive committee chairs or their representatives and ask each committee to propose one or more session ideas or “hot topics.” Those ideas will then go to the planning committee for consideration. Accepted topics will then be assigned to the relevant committee(s) to develop. The 22nd Fall Conference chair, John Jacus, has already conducted these calls for the conference being held in Miami in October 2014.

In addition to the conference planning aspect, the calls can inform the Education Service Group of substantive environmental, energy, and resources issues and speakers of greatest current interest. These discussions are also of interest to the Publications Service Group as a means to generate ideas for articles and books and to identify prospective authors. The reviews of the new planning model so far have been positive.

The Section’s conference planning is guided by a considerable amount of historical data, the experience of members who are veterans of many of our conferences, and our Standards of Excellence. For example, no speaker or moderator is contacted until the Education Service Group has approved that person. As a rule of thumb, panels are limited to no more than three speakers and a moderator. Consideration must be given to diversity on each panel. Our Section expects that moderators do much more than simply introduce the speakers and keep time. They are expected to play a substantive role in the presentation and to facilitate the panel’s interaction with the audience. Conferences are budgeted for one person on a panel to be eligible for travel reimbursement (the Section cannot pay for speakers). Many decisions have to be made by the Education Service Group and a conference planning committee, with considerable assistance from our Section staff, to have a successful conference.

During the year, Fawziah and other Section staff are actively working with the different planning committees to get conferences planned, promoted, and implemented. They visit prospective hotels and negotiate food and beverage rates and room rates, and arrange a variety of activities at the hotels selected for conferences. The Section uses printed brochures, e-mail, social media, and our website to market our conferences. Our Section staff work especially hard at the conference sites because it seems that no matter how much advance planning takes place the hotel, the speakers, or the attendees can present all sorts of last-minute challenges. Technology and travel frequently create issues for our conferences not to mention government shutdowns. Our Section staff do such a great job of meeting these challenges that attendees rarely notice any glitches. The success of our Section’s conferences over the decades has been the result of our dedicated volunteer Section members and talented and experienced professional Section staff.

We appreciate your past support of Section conferences and hope to see you soon at an upcoming conference!

William L. Penny

William L. Penny is a member of the Environmental, Natural Resources and Energy Service Group of Stites & Harbison PLLC in Nashville and is chair of the ABA’s Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources.