June 01, 2016 GP Mentor

GP MENTOR: What I Wish I Had Known about Environmental Law

Colin Kelly

So you think you might be interested in practicing environmental law? Ask yourself why. Sure, it’s good business to diversify your practice. It might even be a field you believe provides you an advantage when consulting with clients. The ability to detail environmental liability before a client buys a commercial property or decides to remodel her home on the coast (potentially running afoul of the state coastal commission) are valid reasons for exploring the field.

Or perhaps your interest in environmental law is founded on a desire to focus on a specific set of issues or problems. Maybe you were raised in rural America and experienced the benign neglect of the lack of environmental enforcement—waterways so polluted with pesticides, nutrients, and bacteria that they can no longer support fishing, swimming, or drinking. Perhaps you are from an urban or suburban area and you endure, or remember, polluted air, lead-based paints, or the placement of polluting industrial facilities in and around low-income communities. These, too, are valid reasons to practice environmental law.

You see, the field of environmental law is extraordinarily broad. Triaging the field to the areas applicable to your interest, or your clients, is necessary to develop expertise. In my case, after law school I became the first staff attorney at a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving regional water quality. My practice is focused on industrial storm water discharges, municipal storm water permits, confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) permits, and public access to beaches and the ocean. No argument, my practice is narrowly focused, but these issues interest me. Beyond working to become better versed in environmental law (e.g., the Clean Water Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and their state counterparts), the one piece of advice I would give a younger version of myself is to focus on relationships.

Relationships with regulators. Large portions of my day are dedicated to interfacing with state or federal environmental regulators drafting policies, plans, and orders. This is where the bulk of environmental protection and planning occurs, and the earlier you enter the process, the more balanced will be the arguments these staffers hear before any language being considered becomes a public draft. Knowing the issues that are important to your client and encouraging early engagement with regulators is likely the most effective and cost-efficient way to impact policy.

Relationships with experts. Environmental advocacy and litigation requires highly specialized, and generally expensive, scientific expertise. Regardless of which experts you use—emeritus or adjunct professors, independent engineers, national engineering firms, etc.—you need to learn the basics of their language. Materials such as the Environmental Science Deskbook (Thomson Reuters, 2013, with updates) provide attorneys without a science background (like me) the ability to comprehend complex issues and have a dialogue with experts. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you don’t understand something. You’re learning, and so is everyone else.

Relationships with colleagues. The environmental law field is smaller than most. Even the largest regional firms might employ only a half-dozen environmental attorneys, with the majority of those dedicated to real estate development. As a nonprofit attorney, my ecosystem includes about a dozen plaintiff’s attorneys statewide and about the same number of defense attorneys. This is far fewer than in nearly any other field of law. It is more likely in this field that you will interface with an individual attorney multiple times—and the sides you represent may change. If you are comfortable with your colleagues, don’t be afraid to ask questions. They might know of a recent case on point or a useful expert in that field.

Making an impact. Regardless of the reason why you’re interested in practicing environmental law, I would encourage you to do it. There are few fields that so readily allow an attorney to influence public policy and see the consequences of their influence as quickly. Early, active, and relationship-based engagement can yield effective project improvements and provide environmental win-win solutions to your client, the environment, and your practice.

Colin Kelly

Colin Kelly is senior staff attorney for Orange County Coastkeeper, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect and promote water resources that are swimmable, drinkable, fishable, and sustainable. He is also an adjunct professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California.