Becoming an environment lawyer – the view from Allen & Overy

Environment A&O

We are more aware of our impact on the environment than ever before, and lawyers play a key role in determining how their clients treat it. A&O's lawyers reveal the ins and outs of this practice and what becoming a lawyer here entails...

Chambers Associate: Can you give a brief description of what the environment group at Allen & Overy does?

Ken Rivlin, partner: Our Global Environmental Law Group includes more than 60 specialist lawyers in Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Our partners and lawyers across the jurisdictions work together on a daily basis, providing integrated, cross-jurisdictional advice on a broad range of issues, including: due diligence and risk allocation in cross-border transactions; advice on product responsibility requirements (such as EU REACH, EU WEEE and RoHS and “copycat” rules in China, South America, the US and elsewhere; managing product compliance issues; ensuring appropriate transfer of carbon credits; managing contaminated land cleanup issues; advising on domestic and international environmental marine liability and shipping issues; addressing oil & gas and minerals mining, extraction and distribution issues, and many other matters.

Felise Cooper, senior counsel: We advise clients on environmental risk and negotiate environmental issues in all kinds of transactions and on a standalone basis. We are known for our multijurisdictional practice and often undertake large-scale projects that require comparative analysis of environmental laws across many geographies.

Nick Ognibene, associate: The environmental group focuses on a mix of compliance advice and transactional support. We assist clients in compliance with American and international environmental regulations, and help our clients manage environmental liabilities arising from a wide variety of transactions, as well as those that emerge 'off-deal.'

“We are known for our multijurisdictional practice and often undertake large-scale projects that require comparative analysis of environmental laws across many geographies.”

: What do associates do?

NO: Associates are responsible for a very wide array of tasks, from researching and drafting compliance advice to clients to facilitating environmental risk management through due diligence and contract drafting/negotiation. Associates are given significant responsibilities early.

FC: Associates draft environmental language for contracts; research environmental rules and requirements; draft advice memos; review environmental investigation reports, permits and compliance materials; draft environmental due diligence reports; and represent our clients in negotiations with counterparties. The day-to-day work is almost always varied, with an associate typically working on several different matters every day. Our practice touches all kinds of industry sectors, from products manufacturing to real estate to energy projects to shipping.

KR: Associates are involved in every aspect of our work, including, among other things, drafting and negotiating agreements, assessing environmental risk and evaluating complex sources of exposure (including but not limited contaminated land, impacts of climate change, product sustainability, water use and safety, human rights and worker safety) and explaining potential outcomes and alternatives to clients and colleagues. From day one, our associates speak directly to clients and learn to handle complex issues and situations. They see virtually every industry sector in every part of the world. In one day, they may work on a desalination plant in Chile, a wind farm in Canada, a mining operation in Africa, and a global industrial and aircraft turbine manufacturer. They also frequently work on exciting pro bono matters: recent matters have included several asylum cases, a survey of international laws governing waste contamination for the United Nations, and compliance and governance advice for a major US NGO. Most matters involve working with lawyers (environmental and otherwise) in other parts of the firm throughout the world. The pace is quick and the work is challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun.

CA: What are the highs of the practice?

FC: Juggling many matters and subjects can be a boon, because it keeps the work interesting and allows for opportunities to work with many different colleagues and practice groups in the firm. Another high is the opportunity to work with an outstanding and congenial group of colleagues across the world.

KR: The best highs involve helping a client solve a difficult problem, get a deal over the line, or position itself strategically for a new opportunity. It can be incredibly exciting and rewarding to complete a long, high-stakes negotiation with a signed agreement that meets the client’s needs. The best and most rewarding part is when that client calls again for his or her next big matter – long-term relationships of trust with both clients and colleagues are what really make this job special.

Another great high is the international aspect of our work. We work with clients and colleagues across the world on a daily basis. At our last off-site (May 2018), which we held in Lisbon, our 60+ lawyer group (with lawyers from the US, Europe and Asia) spent two days together discussing global legal trends and refining our group’s global strategy. We also sampled some great Portuguese wine!

NO: The highs are consistently engaging in substantive and interesting work, and being able to engage in high-level firm-based legal work while having a positive environmental impact (we do not engage in environmental litigation/defense).

“Our practice touches all kinds of industry sectors, from products manufacturing to real estate to energy projects to shipping.”

: And the lows?

NO: When multiple deals and/or client needs come in at the same time; the practice does involve its fair share of busy times and it can sometimes be stressful to manage everything.

FC: Some people don’t enjoy detailed analysis and would prefer to focus on the big picture only; in this practice, you need to focus on both.

KR: I can’t think of too many lows. We can get quite busy, and at the end of the day it is a job. But unless I could play shortstop for the New York Mets I can’t think of too many other jobs I’d trade this for.

“...a global drive for increased corporate transparency on issues like environmental policy, supply chains, human rights and business ‘footprints.'”

CA: What factors are currently driving environmental work?

KR: Our corporate and financial institution clients are increasingly focused on environmental compliance and sustainability. When I first began doing environmental policy work in the late 1980s (just before law school), the field was still reasonably new. The pace of Superfund (contaminated land) litigation, including related insurance coverage claims was really picking up, asbestos and other 'toxic tort' litigation was on the rise, and the USEPA and other state actors, to varying degrees, were making enforcement a priority. As fines and trial awards piled up, banks and companies began taking notice.

Fast forward to today, banks and corporations have a much more sophisticated understanding of environmental risk. They also better understand how environmental and sustainability issues can impact not only share values and access to capital but also their brands and reputations. Added into this mix, environmental legal regimes have evolved substantially outside the US, leading to more regulation and enforcement globally. The impact of these trends has been multiplied by the accelerated globalization that has characterized the world’s economy over the past 30 years. Some companies get it right. And in my experience, most do try. Those that don’t usually do (and should) pay the price.

So what does this mean for our work? We are expecting to see increasing amounts of work advising on alternative energy, supply chain compliance and sustainability, and environmental and safety compliance, particularly in manufacturing, oil & gas and mining. Climate change mitigation is also increasingly a focus, as is improved compliance training and systems to better manage risk. There is increasingly broad recognition (notwithstanding some positions taken by the now not-so-new US administration) that sustainability must be a priority, and this is driving new work for us in countless ways. Clearly, protecting and preserving the environment is one of the greatest challenges the world faces – this is an incredibly exciting time to be doing what we are doing.

FC: Some factors include a global drive for increased corporate transparency on issues like environmental policy, supply chains, human rights and business ‘footprints’; continued globalization of business; changes in political agenda (e.g. Brexit, Trump administration); climate change developments; environmental disasters; and changes in government enforcement practices.

“In today’s highly connected world, clients are especially eager to avoid reputational harm associated with environmental issues.”

: Firms are always concerned about potential environmental liabilities associated with mergers and acquisitions, as well as financings. Many sectors that involve significant environmental, health & safety (EHS) risks are very active. Plus, in today’s highly connected world, clients are especially eager to avoid reputational harm associated with environmental issues.

CA: How can students and associates keep up to date with these trends?

KR: Read. Read. Read. Everything. We have access to so much more information now than ever before. There is no excuse to be uninformed. I try not to limit myself to any one source. I read a rotating collection of daily papers (NY Times, Wall Street Journal, FT, Washington Post), receive updates from the EPA and EU Commission websites and various NGOs, and scan a few daily and weekly blogs. I switch between CNN and Fox just to be sure I am being exposed to various viewpoints. And of course I get my dose of Colbert and SNL Weekend Update when I can.

CA: What opportunities in environmental work are unique to Allen & Overy?

KR: The most unique aspect of Allen & Overy is our global reach. Our global environmental group has over 60 lawyers from 14 countries working together across a broad range of issues. Working at A&O, we need to be experts in comparative law, with a broad understanding of how key issues, such as owner or operator liability for contaminated land, veil piercing and successor liability are handled in different jurisdictions. We’ve had exciting engagements advising on the salability/viability of emission reduction credits under various trading systems. We frequently advise companies on how best to implement global compliance policies that ensure compliance wherever they are located. And we recently did a global survey of community involvement in environmental policymaking for a Chinese government-sponsored project that looked at making Chinese environmental policy more open.

NO: Probably the most unique and best thing about the environmental practice at A&O is that it involves compliance and transactional work but not environmental litigation/defense. Most environmental practices at larger firms involve varying degrees of environmental litigation and defense, which inevitably results in defending firms facing suits or investigations arising from environmental malfeasance on their part. So it can be difficult to engage in environmental work at a firm while consistently contributing to sustainability and not undermining it. A&O’s environmental practice provides just such a (rare) opportunity.

CA: What advice do you have for students interested in this area?

KR: Learn as much as you can. Balance expertise with versatility, so that you can adapt. The world, including the legal world, is in a state of constant, accelerating change. Embrace that.

Also, look for mentors or examples. Find people who are five, ten, 15 years ahead of you on their career paths, and find a way to get to know them. Each person may have a quality or an experience that you can emulate and learn from (or avoid!). Think about what you want to do, see what others have done to be successful, and try to learn from that.

And, importantly, try to have as much fun as you can along the way.

NO: I do wish that I had taken more environmental law classes in law school, and would probably recommend the same for students interested in this field. That said, quality of professors and so forth is equally or more important. And stay true to your beliefs.

FC: Being a specialist increases your control over your schedule and your career. You can call the shots if you are not interchangeable with someone else. If you are unsure, you can get some broader experience before transitioning to this area; it is easier to go from generalist to specialist than the other way around.

CA: Where can new junior associates expect to be in five years?

FC: A mid-level or senior associate at A&O (in the US or abroad) or another firm; an in-house environmental or transactional lawyer at a bank or corporation; occupying a government position; or working as an independent consultant.

NO: Being singularly responsible for managing EHS components of major transactions and handling client environmental compliance queries. There is a lot of early responsibility and significant opportunities to develop and take ownership.

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