December 10, 2009

The Challenges and Rewards of Environmental Pro Bono Work

Posted on December 10, 2009 by Christopher Davis

I suspect most of us did not go into environmental law to see how much money we could make as lawyers, but because we care about preserving and protecting the planet. While many of us, particularly in the private sector, have made a good living practicing environmental law, I believe it is our interest in and dedication to the subject matter and the outcomes that have attracted and kept most of us in this field. Most of us are “green” at heart and want to do well while doing good for the environment. Environmental pro bono work provides an opportunity to “give back” to the planet in ways private practice may not.

While we can do much good in private practice, the economic realities of private environmental practice impose some significant limitations on what we work on – generally solving the problems that our clients are willing to pay us to address that serve their business interests. To some extent, most of us are constrained to work on yesterday’s environmental problems – those which are regulated and for which clients will pay us to solve. Relatively few of us get a chance to work for paying clients on the great environmental issues of our time that will determine the future of life on earth: climate change, sustainable development and business practices, tropical forest preservation and species conservation, the impact of environmental degradation on the poor.

One way for those of us in private practice who are environmentalists at heart to more affirmatively work on the side of the environment and thereby increase our professional satisfaction and impact is to do environmental pro bono work. Pro bono work is generally defined by ABA Model Rule 6.1 and the Pro Bono Institute as performing legal work outside the ordinary course of commercial practice and without expectation of a fee, for persons of limited means or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental or educational organizations, where such services are focused primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means, or to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties or public rights. An additional category of pro bono work involves providing legal services to charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental or educational organizations in matters that further their organizational purposes. Environmental pro bono work typically involves the protection of public rights and the representation of nonprofit organizations in furtherance of their environmental missions. Many law firms have committed to the Pro Bono Institute’s Pro Bono Challenge, committing to dedicate at least 3% of the firm’s billable hours to pro bono work. 

Environmental pro bono work is a way for environmental lawyers to use their skills and experience to promote the environmental values that inspired us to practice environmental law. Environmental pro bono practice can include a variety of litigation and transactional work and related legal advice designed to conserve or protect resources, lay the groundwork for new laws or regulations, enforce existing environmental laws, and prevent or mitigate adverse environmental impacts to various environmental resources or disadvantaged communities. The latter, focusing on preventing adverse environmental impacts on low income, minority or other disadvantaged communities is typically described as “environmental justice” work. In Massachusetts, a referral clearinghouse called the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Assistance Network (MEJAN) has been set up by a non-profit organization and the Environmental Law Section of the Boston Bar Association to link environmental lawyers and consultants with community groups seeking legal assistance. 

Environmental pro bono work is often harder to come by than traditional pro bono work. One problem, particularly in a large law firm, is conflicts. In addition to the obvious ethical prohibition on handling matters directly adverse to a firm’s clients, proposed environmental pro bono work often raises “issue conflicts” where the proposed representation would involve representing an organization or position that might be considered generally adverse to the interests of the firm’s current or prospective clients (e.g., real estate developers, power companies or manufacturers), have the potential to create an adverse precedent for an important industry, or involve representation of interests and positions that some clients (or partners) do not like. In theory, pro bono clients and representations should be subject to the same ethical and conflicts standards as work for paying clients, but in practice this can be difficult to achieve given the politics and economics involved.

Regarding potential issue conflicts, there is a respectable argument that may be persuasive at least to enlightened clients (and partners) that it is helpful to be represented by lawyers who have worked on the other side of an issue, represented or have good relationships with adversaries and have a deeper understanding of the relevant environmental issues and perspectives. A lawyer who has worked on both the “environmental” and “regulated community” sides of an issue should be able to provide better advice and may have more credibility with regulators and citizen group adversaries that will be useful in negotiating a solution. Also, in our work for paying clients, it is not uncommon to take inconsistent positions for different clients in different matters, and to represent both plaintiffs and defendants or buyers and sellers.

Some types of environmental pro bono work may be less problematic in terms of client or issue conflicts. These may include conservation work for non-profits like The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land or local land trusts; matters seeking to enforce environmental laws against those government agencies and their operations, activities and projects, opposing particular development projects that threaten public resources, and certain environmental justice cases. Of course, each case is fact and situation specific and may raise conflicts or concerns.

We are fortunate to have the privilege to practice environmental law. Our work is generally interesting and significant – combining law, policy, science, economics and politics in solving complex and important environmental problems. Moreover, environmental lawyers are generally nice, thoughtful and decent people, and the environmental bar is still relatively small, collegial and public spirited. Each of us has the opportunity to do more good for the planet and achieve greater personal satisfaction than our paying practice allows through environmental pro bono work. Finding viable opportunities to do environmental pro bono work can be challenging, but is worth the effort.

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