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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 laws.

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 their employers.

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 (www.caprep.com) and 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 levels.

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 environmental concerns.

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.


Clay Burns is a paralegal at Dominion Resources, Inc., in Richmond, Va. Prior to joining Dominion, Burns was a paralegal at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va. Burns received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Washington & Lee University, Lexington, Va. He can be reached at [email protected].

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