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May/June 2024

Views from the Chair

Jeffery Scott Dennis

Views from the Chair
Luis Alvarez via Getty Image

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In a previous column in Trends, I highlighted the great strides our Section has made to expand and enhance our engagement with law students and young lawyers, from creating the Environmental Law Society Network (ELSN) and SEER Bridge Program to working hard to ensure that these new Section members can attend our conferences. Because of these efforts, I’ve had a unique opportunity during my year as chair to meet many law students and young lawyers, share some of my advice and experience, and get to know them and the challenges they face as they transition into practicing attorneys. I’ve learned a lot, and it has also been incredibly fun! 

Engaging so much with those new to our profession this year has also led me to reflect on how the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) helped me make transitions in my own career, and how we can help today’s law students and young lawyers make the same transitions. I want to share here some of my reflections on my SEER journey in the hopes they can help inform how we move ahead in helping future generations transition to successful careers. 

I joined the American Bar Association (ABA) and SEER in law school to receive SEER publications and to learn more about these practice areas. I joined as a full lawyer member when I graduated, mostly because it’s what every lawyer in my firm did as a matter of course. I didn’t become active until two years later. By this time, I was a young lawyer in a government agency, and while I loved the job and the work, I was craving opportunities to network and engage with a broader set of lawyers and professionals outside the four walls of the agency. SEER gave me opportunities to write for publications, including committee articles and The Year in Review, get my name out there, and demonstrate my ability to clearly explain complex subjects.

Next, SEER gave me the opportunity to build leadership skills. I applied for, and received, an appointment as the ABA Young Lawyers Division liaison to SEER. This position gave me a unique opportunity very early in my career to represent the interests and needs of new lawyers to SEER’s leadership. It also allowed me to attend and participate in Council meetings, where I was able to meet and develop relationships with established Section leaders and experts in the fields of environment, energy, and resources law and policy. This experience, and my work to bring the perspective of young lawyers to SEER leadership to help improve the young lawyer member experience, led to later appointments as a committee chair, member of Council, budget officer, publications officer, membership and diversity officer, and now Section chair.

As my career progressed, all these positions taught me valuable leadership lessons that made me a better lawyer and leader of programs in government and nonprofit and I moved into roles with more responsibilities. It isn’t just the titles, though, that have made SEER so valuable to me in navigating various phases of my career. More than anything, it has been the relationships I have been able to develop and nurture, and the people that have enthusiastically supported me, been there to offer advice, or were willing to take a call to offer their expertise.

Two stories of these relationships and how they helped me in my career stand out for me: 

In 2010 and 2011, I was working as a legal advisor to a commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The expertise of myself and the other advisors was in energy law and policy and FERC-regulated markets, but increasingly FERC was being asked to weigh in on regulations being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit emissions of air pollutants from power plants. The commissioner I worked for had many questions. Thanks to the relationships I had built in SEER, I had the ability to call some of the best Clean Air Act lawyers in the country to help answer his questions. One even offered to fly in and meet with our team. My ability to bring in top expertise on the issue helped me build instant trust and credibility with my boss, and improved his preparedness to engage in what became a high-profile public policy debate.

In June 2014, I was a relatively new (and relatively young) director of policy development at FERC when EPA proposed the Clean Power Plan, an ambitious effort to use the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shifting power generation to low and zero emissions power plants. Because of our mutual engagement in SEER, I reached out to Roger Martella, a former general counsel of EPA—then in private practice—to ask if one his associates could provide a presentation to my 30-person staff of economists, engineers, and policy analysts that explained what the rule was proposing to do. Roger came and gave the presentation himself. The ability to call on a former general counsel of EPA to provide a briefing gave me instant credibility with my new team and FERC leadership, helping me transition into a new senior staff role in the agency.

I know others have taken a similar path to mine and have their own stories and reflections about how SEER has helped them navigate the various stages of their career. One of my primary goals this year has been to get the word out more broadly about all the good that SEER does and the benefits we provide. So, if you have stories or reflections you’re willing to share, please reach out! I’m interested in sharing these stories of the value of SEER to both potential new members and newer members who may not have unlocked these benefits yet.

To be sure, law students and young lawyers face a different reality than I did when I was in their shoes. Law firms and other employers are less likely today to encourage ABA and SEER membership as a matter of routine. Cost pressures facing lawyers mean that our Section must enhance its efforts to provide valuable benefits and create a welcoming and inclusive environment in which to access those benefits. 

With that in mind, our leadership strives to understand what new initiatives or programs we can provide to help our members navigate the career transition challenges they face, especially for those newer to the profession who face a new and unique set of circumstances. SEER has done so much for me, and I hope that SEER will offer the same invaluable experiences for those who follow.