The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Deidre G. Duncan, Partner and Co-Head, Environmental Practice — Administrative Law
Deidre represents clients in permitting, compliance, and litigation relating to the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and other federal environmental statutes. She works with clients on infrastructure and civil works projects, including matters involving funding, acquisition, and construction. She frequently advises clients on administrative rulemaking and policy, clarifying regulatory matters and drafting federal and state legislation on many intricate issues. She is also well known for negotiating and obtaining permits for complicated energy and development projects.
Deidre’s clients include development companies, oil and natural gas pipelines, electric utilities, agricultural entities, state and local agencies, and trade associations.
Prior to entering private practice, Deidre served for four years as assistant general counsel of the Army at the Pentagon, advising the secretary of the Army on environmental and land use issues involving the Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works projects and base closures. She has extensive experience dealing with federal regulatory agencies, military departments, and the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition, she has frequently been asked to brief and testify before Congress about possible changes to the Clean Water Act.
She writes for Hunton Andrews Kurth’s environmental and pipeline industry blogs.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
I co-lead and manage 50 environmental lawyers, a deep talent pool that includes lawyers who previously served inside various federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Energy. We’re experienced in the full range of regulatory and compliance issues arising from all federal and state environmental statutes, and we help clients contend with those myriad requirements.
We also advise energy and other infrastructure clients in securing the requisite permits to construct and operate projects across the country. In addition, we navigate crisis situations and defend clients against government enforcement actions.
Our environmental attorneys frequently cross over into other practices, aiding the firm’s Energy, M&A, and Real Estate departments, among others. We’re active litigators, too, having participated in more than 40 U.S. Supreme Court cases and hundreds of cases in the U.S. Courts of Appeals.
What types of clients do you represent?
Our environmental group represents companies across all parts of the energy industry, including interstate natural gas pipelines, electric utilities, and gas and coal export companies. For example, I lead our team of lawyers in advising the developers of the Sabal Trail Pipeline in a complex tri-state permitting process that cleared the way for construction that was completed in 2017.
I’m also counsel to agricultural and development interests, state and local agencies, and national trade associations. For example, I previously have been outside general counsel to the Waters Advocacy Coalition (WAC), a group of 60 national trade organizations that’s regarded as the leading industry voice on the Clean Water Act. I helped organize the Coalition, and I’ve supported it both in briefings before Congress and in the courts. I’ve argued against further changes to the landmark statute and in favor of judicial review when authorizations and permits are challenged. I represented groups within the WAC as amicus—for instance, in the Supreme Court case of Rapanos v. U.S., in which the high court rejected a broad government reading of the Clean Water Act.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
Much of my work is for clients seeking project approvals under the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other laws governing federal permitting. I work with clients to ensure that their projects comply. For instance, I am leading the firm’s work for Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC on federal permitting matters involving its new mines and mine-extension projects in Florida. I am also leading our team’s work with Enbridge Inc. We are representing and advising them on federal permitting issues for several significant oil and gas transportation projects, including the construction of the country’s first offshore deep-water port dedicated to exporting oil. We are also representing Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC on environmental matters involving the construction and operation of approximately 301 miles of new pipeline and associated facilities, extending from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. These are just a few of the projects I am currently managing.
How did you choose this practice area?
I earned my B.A. on an Army ROTC scholarship, then deferred my required military service until after law school. With my J.D. in hand, I was accepted to a government honors program in environmental law with the Army as assistant general counsel of the Army at the Pentagon. That’s when I took my first deep dive into the Clean Water Act, advising the secretary of the Army on environmental and land use issues involved in the Corps of Engineers’ civil works projects. They involved everything from ambitious environmental restoration ventures and flood risk management initiatives to hydroelectric dams and municipal water supply systems. I also learned the nuts and bolts of the Corps’ so-called 404 regulatory program, referring to the portion of the CWA that governs discharge of dredge and fill materials into navigable U.S. waters.
I enjoyed applying my legal skills to the real-world environmental problems presented by high-impact infrastructure, water, and energy projects, and I thrived while mastering environmental rules and laws. When I decided to move into private practice, I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an environmental lawyer.
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
I represent clients on calls and in meetings with federal and state agencies. I review clients’ project plans, thoroughly evaluating them for possible permitting and compliance issues. Clients often bring me in at the congressional level, too, asking me to draft rule refinements or proposed legislation that they can then run through their internal channels. I also defend clients and agencies that have been challenged in court.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Work within the government first. Through on-the-job training, you’ll learn how to interpret and apply environmental statutes and regulations and gain invaluable experience dealing directly with governmental and legislative agencies. That will make you much more effective in representing clients in private practice.
What is unique about your practice area at your firm?
Our environmental practice began in 1970, and it’s among the oldest in the country. Acting on behalf of clients, our lawyers had a voice in the initial enactment and implementation of all of today’s federal and state environmental statutes. Since the CWA’s inception, we’ve played a role in every important rulemaking. The same can be said about our involvement in the Clean Air Act.
Our environmental group also generates its own work. That sets us apart from many other firms, where environmental attorneys primarily service other departments’ clients. We’re independent, and that gives us a lot of freedom.
What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?
The team is diligent about making sure that our summer associates are integrated into hands-on work. While they do spend a lot of time researching and writing, they might also attend Hill hearings or a SCOTUS hearing. At times, they may be invited to a client meeting. Lateral associates bring with them an expertise in an area. We aim to bring on folks that will be able to do the kind of work that they already love and want to be doing.
How do you see this practice area evolving in the future?
I’m very enthusiastic. I would encourage any attorney with an interest in working on relevant, real-life issues to consider a career in environmental law. How we manage and care for our world’s environment is going to be increasingly important in the future. I see environmental law continuing to evolve and taking on a more pronounced role in business operations and policy.
How do you balance the different hats (from litigation to transactional work to regulatory matters) that an environmental lawyer must wear?
That’s one of the most fun and unique aspects of my job. On any given day, I might be called in by M&A partners to advise on environmental due diligence for a big acquisition. Or members of our Real Estate Development and Finance team might ask for my help on a power plant or other type of construction project. I also have the opportunity to practice before all three branches of government. I do have to tailor my approach to address the needs of my audience, but it’s not a difficult balance.