I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the American Bar Association Section on Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) Annual Spring Symposium, held this year at Vanderbilt Law School last Friday, May 2nd. SEER Chair Bill Penny had the vision to build the symposium around the themes of the state and future of the practice, so it was a natural to host the event at Vanderbilt and I was glad to be a part of it.
My three panelists made for a powerhouse of energy, environmental, and resources practitioners: David Hill, Executive VP and GC of NRG Energy and former GC of the US Department of Energy; Ann Klee, VP of Environment, Health, and Safety at General Electric and former GC of the US EPA; and Janice Schneider, partner at Latham & Watkins in DC and just confirmed by the Senate the day before the symposium as Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior for Land and Minerals. Needless to say, I saw my job as moderator to be staying out of the way so my panelists could offer insight and advice, which they did immeasurably. Here I’ll distill what they said of most importance to law students and young lawyers about navigating the turbulence of today’s legal practice world and building a practice:
Don’t Skip the Basics: While it is enticing to think of riding a new trend like 3D printing to capture its practice opportunities, all the panelists agreed they do not hire young lawyers to be trend-spotters—they hire young lawyers who are good lawyers. That means lawyers with relevant domain knowledge, the ability to write crisply and clearly, strong communication skills, the capacity to work well in groups, the ability to manage relationships with clients, regulators, competitors, and the public, and the rest of what goes into the foundation of good lawyering. And don’t be a jerk.
Follow Emerging Technologies: Once you have the basics down, what’s the best way to spot and capitalize on emerging trends? The panelists agreed that, at least for the energy, environmental, and resources practice areas, emerging technologies drive legal change. Three emerging technologies that got the most attention were nanomaterials, distributed energy, and 3D printing. Distributed energy technology, for example, will change the level of control energy consumers have over their energy profile, thus leading to profound changes in the energy utility and distribution industries that will demand new legal regimes.
Learn Something About How Businesses Operate: Whether your practice is in a firm, government, NGO, or in-house, business actions and decisions drive an enormous slug of legal practice in the US. So it can’t hurt a law student or young lawyer to learn a bit about how businesses operate. Take basic law courses in corporate law, mergers and acquisitions, finance, etc., and even take some classes in a business school while in law school.
The Rise of Private Governance: One theme that spun through my panel and a panel later in the day was the increasing importance of private regulation as a legal practice field. The example my panel gave was supply chain regulation, in which a company demands upstream suppliers meet specified performance or product standards, embodied in contract terms, for environmental quality which often go above and beyond minimum standards established in public regulation. Not all regulatory practice, in other words, is about public regulation—your client’s customer might be its most aggressive regulator. (For more on this theme, see the work of my Vanderbilt colleague Mike Vandenbergh.)
Beware of Buzzwords: If you dream of being a “sustainability lawyer” or a “climate change lawyer,” the panelists had some sobering advice for you: they don’t hire “sustainability lawyers” or “climate change lawyers.” They hire lawyers with expertise in fields that are relevant to how their clients decide they need to respond to sustainability and climate change, in fields like air pollution, water pollution, endangered species, etc. Their advice was to build your expertise around relevant statutory regimes (Clean Air Act, Endangered Specie Act, Federal Power Act, etc.) to best position yourself to assist a client that is developing or implementing its sustainability and climate change policies.
Embrace Serendipity: Resonating with one of my Law 2050 class themes, the panelists all agreed that, now more than ever, young lawyers need to jump on opportunities to deepen and diversify their expertise, including taking chances to try new practice fields and settings.