It Ain’t Easy Being Green
The challenges, rewards and
opportunities in environmental law.
By Clayton T. Burns
November/December 2003 Issue
The practice of environmental law isn’t a traditional area for
paralegals, and paralegals working in this area might be underutilized.
However, integrating paralegals into the substantive part of an
environmental practice can create an incredibly useful and comparatively
inexpensive resource for environmental attorneys.
A well-trained and motivated paralegal can provide essential
support to environmental attorneys who must stay up-to-date with new
regulatory developments arising under federal and state environmental
I have been a paralegal in both a large corporate law firm’s and a
Fortune 500 company’s environmental law sections. Much of my work has
involved tracking and reporting on the rulemaking activities of the
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and analogous state
environmental protection agencies. Based on my professional experience,
there are countless ways a paralegal can become more involved in an
environmental law practice.
Taking the Initiative
Ultimately, an environmental paralegal will acquire more
substantive responsibility and knowledge through his or her own
initiative. Understanding the unique world of environmental regulation
thankfully doesn’t require a Juris Doctor degree. Certainly, legal
analysis and statutory/regulatory interpretation can’t be made (at least
legally) by nonlawyers. However, environmental regulation is a mix of
the legal and the technical, and many nonlawyers develop an extensive
knowledge of environmental law or some specialized part of it.
Paralegals who take advantage of free training opportunities and ask
their supervising attorneys, and their clients questions, will be poised
to undertake more responsibility and provide more service and value to
The role I assumed as an environmental paralegal has developed
primarily through on-the-job training. Each new assignment provided an
opportunity to fill in another piece of the environmental regulatory
puzzle. While some assignments, such as searching for particular
language in a series of rulemaking preambles, could be performed with
little subject matter knowledge, I have found asking the attorney to
provide some specific background on the issue in question to be a
mutually beneficial exercise. Following up with the attorney to see how
he or she applied the details of the research to answering the client’s
legal question is equally important.
As my research skills and understanding of environmental issues
have evolved, I have been able to undertake independent review of
current regulatory developments with an eye toward the issues affecting
various clients, and report them to the attorneys I support.
The Benefit to Law Firms
In the law firm environment, ongoing regulatory tracking and
analysis provides essential information to clients confronting difficult
and expensive compliance issues. Many clients rely on outside counsel to
be the primary conduit through which new regulatory information flows.
Thus, it’s necessary to keep on top of (and, in many cases, ahead of)
new EPA and state initiatives on a daily basis.
By having a paralegal involved in the front-end of the process,
firm lawyers can work more efficiently and legal fees can be better
managed. Charging a paralegal with monitoring current regulatory
developments also can provide the added benefit of many times being the
first of a client’s competing outside law firms to disseminate new
information. This strategy will help serve a firm’s business development
interests and allow lawyers to maximize their billable hours.
Getting the Corporate Edge
After seven years as an environmental paralegal in a large
law firm, I took my experience and skills to the legal department of a
large energy company. In this in-house environment, my most significant
challenge is reviewing, synthesizing and summarizing key environmental
regulatory and policy information available from myriad sources. The
growing problem of information overload is a constant concern. Keeping
up with just regulatory agency Web sites, the Federal Register, and
various environmental news sources could be a full-time job in itself.
Thus, the ability to filter out the nonessential is an important skill.
The company’s memberships in national and state trade associations
are the best venues for information and analysis on environmental
issues. The expertise and historical knowledge of the lawyers
representing these associations is astounding. And since they maintain
direct contact with EPA and state officials, these lawyers often can
provide first-hand insight on regulatory agencies’ constantly shifting
priorities. Many of these trade groups use extranet or other secure Web
sites to disseminate and store regulatory information for their members.
Getting connected to these information reservoirs is essential.
Tools of the Trade
Whether in the law firm or the corporate environment, cost
management is an essential part of serving clients. Fortunately, free
information abounds on the World Wide Web. Sites such as Capitol Reports
Environmental Law Net (www.environmentallawnet.com)
are good sources of “free” environmental news. Capitol Reports also is
an excellent portal for accessing federal and state agency and court Web
pages. For case decisions, more and more federal district courts and
state court judiciaries are posting opinions and docket information on
their developing Web sites. These Web sites often post opinions before
Westlaw and LexisNexis.
On the regulatory side, nothing can replace thorough daily review
of the Federal Register, individual state registers, and EPA and state
agency Web sites. All of these resources are freely available online.
The Federal Register is posted daily, usually by 6 a.m., at
www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/. Many state registers are posted long before
subscription-based print versions would arrive. EPA and state
environmental agency Web sites, which post crucial guidance documents,
enforcement actions, and other news of interest to environmental
practitioners, are invaluable sources of information from regulators.
Free registration for Web site listservs allows for instant e-mail
notification of new postings. The savvy environmental paralegal can use
these and a wealth of other non-fee-based resources to monitor and
report on the latest regulatory developments at the federal and state
Of course, no discussion of free research tools would be complete
without mention of
www.google.com. Other Internet search engines are available and
should be in the researcher’s arsenal. However, Google is indispensable,
if only to do an initial screening search to gather background on a
legal or technical subject with which you are unfamiliar.
Tools for Pay
Subscription-only periodicals published by companies such as
BNA, Inside EPA, and E&E Publishing are the standard for learning about
new environmental rulemaking and policy initiatives.
In addition, fee-based research and regulatory tracking services
managed by BNA, Enflex and other companies offer to do the bulk of the
legwork for you. It’s my experience, however, that going directly to the
sources themselves (i.e., actual rulemaking registers) is the most
timely, efficient and comprehensive method of retrieving and reviewing
new information. A simple and organized collection of bookmarks provides
easy and fast access to these resources. Given the costs associated with
environmental noncompliance, it’s unwise to rely solely on a paid
subscription service for new regulatory information. These services
obviously can’t be cognizant of a company’s history and unique
You Can Make a Difference
As regulatory action in multiple jurisdictions increases,
it’s a challenge for environmental law departments to keep up with the
staggering volume of pre-proposal, proposed and final rulemakings being
issued under various air, water and waste programs. Keeping up to date
on the latest developments on the regulatory front, sometimes by
necessity, becomes a low priority for environmental attorneys facing
mounting deadlines and other time pressures. A paralegal with an
interest in environmental issues can create a unique niche by
integrating himself or herself into the regulatory aspects of the
practice; the mutual interests of the paralegal, attorney and employer
will be well served, and clients will be the deserving beneficiaries.