October 03, 2022


Posted on October 3, 2022 by Ronald R. Janke

Environmental lawyers should consider the benefits of in-person communication on environmental decision-making when arranging meetings with their clients, colleagues, adversaries, or other third parties.   Collective environmental decision-making occurs in many internal and external contexts.  Agency decisions occur in rulemaking, issuing policies or permits, granting approvals, bringing and settling enforcement actions, initiating and processing claims for remedial actions, and in other ways.  These actions trigger further decision-making by regulated parties, non-governmental organizations, and the general public.  These entities also engage in environmental decision-making when initiating applications, petitions, claims, and other actions related to the environment.

In-person decision-making can expedite and lead to better decisions.  Setting a date and making the arrangements for an in-person public meeting or conference fixes a date that is rarely extended.  In-person oral presentations allow those concerned with a pending decision to more clearly convey their emotions about a project.  Such presentations give speakers greater confidence that they have been heard. 

Working together in the same room during negotiations can help build a sense of collaboration, promote civility, and reduce misunderstandings.  Negotiations are also aided by the ability of participants to easily step out of the room to discuss previously unconsidered arguments and positions and to reconsider their own positions.  A party can also quickly call a break when discussions are over-heated or at an impasse, and this may be easier to discern during in-person discussions.  Quick one-on-one discussions outside the conference room can also help parties find common ground in their shared interests, develop areas of agreement, and narrow the issues in the continuing discussions.  These side discussions are more effective when the parties can directly observe each other’s body language and levels of sincerity, thereby building trust. 

Environmental decision-making with clients, or within an organization, is also aided by face-to-face meetings.  Participants sitting in a room together can more readily focus collectively on the issues being discussed than when participants are on-line.  Who has not been in a virtual meeting when in the background a telephone rings, a dog barks, or a child cries?  In the longer-term, sound environmental decision-making can be promoted by in-person mentoring of younger lawyers, especially on an impromptu basis.  Mentoring usually works better and occurs more often in person than virtually, and younger lawyers highly value these opportunities.  Mentoring is also an important mechanism for helping the legal profession provide stronger support for the careers of women and minorities. 

Environmental decision-making is becoming more complex.  Leading issues such as climate change and toxic chemicals have very broad impacts.  Increased tribal consultations and environmental justice considerations extend the scope of environmental decision-making.  To serve the needs of clients for effective and efficient environmental decisions, lawyers should seek to secure the benefits of face-to-face meetings despite the continued existence and personal convenience of remote or hybrid work schedules in much of the American workforce.