November 01, 2016

Views from the Chair: Some thoughts about our conferences

Seth Davis

After I went on at some length in my last column about the fun I have had with the Section through the years, I was asked if I could actually point to a tangible bit of Section content from which my practice has directly benefitted. Well, I answered, where do I start? All of those briefs and memos amplified by obscure cases I found in The Year in Review? Enlightenment from Ted Garrett’s unrivalled “In Brief” summaries in Trends? No, the place to start was the first time I went to Keystone.

For many years, the Annual Conference on Environmental Law, held every March at a ski resort in Keystone, Colorado, was the Section event. Conference attendees would hear from the brightest luminaries in environmental law in the morning, spend all evening dining and imbibing in the most convivial fashion, and, in between that, some people went skiing. Keystone, everyone told me, was where I had to go if I wanted to be in the forefront of the environmental field. The problem was that I worked for a company that took a dim view of “boondoggles.”

So I wrote out an affirmation pursuant to section 2106 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules (a statement in lieu of an affidavit—a privilege also available, by the way, to physicians, dentists, and osteopaths) stating, in relevant part, that I was not a skier, that I had no plans to ski, that I wanted to go to Keystone purely for professional reasons, and that I did not, under any circumstance, intend to have anything resembling a good time. My boss had no choice but to let me go.

The conference’s highlight was a panel on how to handle a complex environmental case. Experienced speakers laid out how to coordinate the efforts and contributions of inside and outside counsel, technical and medical experts, public relations personnel, and representatives from a host of other fields. I took copious notes. My company had just become involved in a challenging case under the new Superfund law, in which it was facing an eight-figure cleanup cost (big money in those days), plus personal injury suits from over 800 people who had been evacuated from a nearby housing project due to alleged chemical contamination. I came down from the mountain and organized the company’s defense team exactly as the ABA panelists had recommended. Eight years later, following that plan, and following the submission by the company to EPA of a study showing that contamination was only minimal and the housing project was not contaminated, the matter was resolved by a vastly less costly cleanup and the repopulation and rehabilitation of the housing project. Thank you, ABA Section of Natural Resources Law (as we were then known)!

We don’t go to Keystone any more, but the Section continues to offer programming of the same depth and quality. By the time these words are published, our 24th Fall Conference in Denver, chaired by Alf Brandt, will be over, and we will be looking forward to our 46th Spring Conference—the lineal descendant of Keystone—in Los Angeles. I have had the privilege of working along with Maggie Peloso and her planning committee, and I can tell you that this spring’s conference will be superb. The planning process entails submission of ideas by all of the Section’s dozens of committees; open, collaborative discussion of these ideas in a series of conference calls; and a day-long, in person working session of the conference planning committee, which is a microcosm of our Section’s capabilities, experience, and diversity. This collaboration and interaction makes the resulting program unique.

What you saw in Denver and what you will see in Los Angeles is, thus, the product of a long effort by many people. And it is a product that only the Section could produce. Think back to our Fall Conference in Baltimore three years ago, when the federal government had shut down and almost all of the high-ranking government speakers on our program had to cancel. Amy Edwards, then conference planning chair, managed to replace all of the cancelling speakers—mostly with Section members who formerly held their same positions! No other group could have done it.

So come to Los Angeles! Tell your boss that you’ll be cooped up for a couple of days with leading experts in the fields of environmental, energy, and resources law. Emphasize that you will come back with knowledge and insights that will make you a better, more effective lawyer. Point out that you will make contacts with lawyers in private practice and government that you just can’t make anywhere else. But be careful about promising not to have a good time. Because, my youthful affirmation notwithstanding, it is quite likely that you will.

Seth Davis

Seth Davis is the chair of the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources for 2016–2017. Seth is a partner in Elias Group LLP in Rye, New York. A long-time Section member, he has previously served as publications officer, Council member, and chair of the Environmental Transactions and Brownfields and Site Remediation Committees.