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What I Wish I Had Known about Environmental Law

Colin Alexander Kelly

What I Wish I Had Known about Environmental Law
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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.

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 stormwater discharges, municipal stormwater 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 Endangered Species 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 require 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.

This is an edited and abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of GPSolo magazine, volume 33, number 3, published by the American Bar Association Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. Membership in the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division is now complimentary. Join now

Learn more about environmental law by watching the ABA Career Center Career Choice webinar on environmental law. Learn from two expert panelists what it's like to be an environmental lawyer. (Note: This is not for CLE. The recorded program and materials are exclusively for ABA members.)