Environmental law can differ greatly depending on an attorney’s client base; one can work for a public interest group or firm to fight to preserve the environment or can represent companies to navigate environmental regulations. On either side, the practice heavily involves regulations and laws at the national, state, and local level. Practitioners in this area should be comfortable with science as well as politics, which both figure heavily into the practice. Environmental lawyers for public interest groups can work long hours for little pay and feel that they are always fighting deeper pockets. Lawyers representing companies can feel frustrated by the regulations that prevent commercial activity. In large firms, many real estate, energy, and project finance lawyers will deal with environmental regulations in their deals, and litigators representing companies in these sectors will also deal with environmental issues. Among areas environmental lawyers may handle include air quality, chemicals regulation, California’s environmental standards, contamination, hazardous materials, insurance, natural resources, mining, occupational safety and health, Superfund, sustainability, toxic torts, water, wildlife protection, and more.
- Energy Law
- Environmental Law
- Real estate Law
- Regulatory Law
- Seminars (e.g., Climate Change, International Environmental Law, Natural Resources, etc.)
- Boutique environmental law firm
- Government service at the EPA or similar state agency
- Public interest law firm or organization
Please provide an overview of what, substantively, your practice area entails.
Alan: My practice centers on representing clients in land use and development matters. I assist in obtaining land use entitlements and in the California Environmental Quality Act review process that is required for most significant projects in the state. I counsel clients when they are seeking development approvals or considering whether to do so. My practice also involves defending projects against administrative and court challenges to the approvals and to the environmental review that underlies those permits.
LeAnn: I regularly advise clients on compliance with complex technical regulatory obligations under the federal environmental statutes and their state counterparts. I also represent clients on enforcement defense, rulemaking proceedings, permitting actions, transactions, and environmental emergencies.
What types of clients do you represent?
Alan: My clients have included developers, landowners, financial and educational institutions, energy companies, and public agencies. Examples include:
- A developer that is redeveloping suburban property into three state-of-the-art life sciences buildings;
- An urban property owner that obtained the necessary land use approvals to establish dwelling units;
- A developer that seeks all necessary approvals for a rural residential community and wildlife preserve; and
- An air quality management district in defense of litigation challenging district rule amendments.
LeAnn: I represent the petroleum refining industry and other related energy sector clients. My clients include services involved in the production, transportation, and storage of crude oil, natural gas, petroleum products, and coal bed methane.
What types of deals and/or cases do you work on?
Alan: I work on a broad range of matters involving land use entitlement applications, plans to seek entitlements, and environmental review of agency actions associated with development projects. The proposed projects vary widely and include developing housing, research and development space, shopping centers, mixed-use complexes, educational institutions, hospitals, and public infrastructure.
LeAnn: I typically advise on agency rule-making, defend enforcement actions and respond to environmental emergencies like oil spills, fires, and explosions. In the recent past, I have settled a number of cases for various clients affected by the EPA’s national Petroleum Refinery Initiative. In addition, I successfully settled a U.S. Department of Justice suit over an oil spill that discharged from a CVR Energy affiliate’s facility into a Kansas river.
How did you decide to practice in your area?
Alan: I have been interested in environmental and urban policy since late in high school. As a law student, I took courses in property, land use, and environmental law and came to enjoy exploring the intersection of policy and law that underlies many issues in those fields. What sealed the deal for me were excellent, stimulating summer positions with a private firm and with the land use and environmental protection team of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.
LeAnn: Unlike other practitioners and recent law school graduates, I didn’t identify my specialty or area of interest until I started working. My first case out of law school involved issues related to environmental law. At the time, I was in the litigation department but I was completely focused on the environmental issues in the case. I fell in love with environmental law and the rest is history.
What is a typical day or week like in your practice area?
Alan: I think this holds true for most lawyers, but there is no average day or week for me. On any given day, I might review and provide comments on an environmental impact report, research the requirements of a particular statute or local ordinance, draft a letter to public agency officials advocating for a certain outcome, meet with clients to explain how the law applies to their project, or propose revisions to application materials a client plans to submit.
LeAnn: I can’t anticipate what any day at work will be like. I may speak with my clients and update them on the status of their cases, draft comments on proposed rules, respond to state information requests, answer clients’ questions on compliance, and familiarize myself with current agency rule making. I tend to start with a “to do” list every day, but find it hard to keep only to that list. It’s a juggling act and I love the unpredictable nature of the work.
What is the best thing about your practice area?
Alan: Each matter is unique. Clients have different needs based on the specific projects they seek to develop, the regulatory context applicable to those projects, and how local officials and the public respond to the proposals. As a result, my work varies tremendously and stays fresh and interesting. I can say honestly that I cannot think of two matters that have presented the same set of issues and legal needs.
LeAnn: I truly learn something new every day. I find this area of law incredibly interesting and rewarding. I get to work with extremely smart industry professionals and strategize on challenging and complex legal issues.
What is the most challenging aspect of your practice area?
Alan: Each matter is unique. (Does that answer sound familiar?) The novelty inherent in my practice also presents a corresponding challenge, namely that I rarely have the luxury of spending much time on straightforward issues that are undemanding. Environmental and land use laws and regulations can be complex, ambiguous, and fast changing. I always need to stay current and focused on the nuances of every new issue facing a client.
LeAnn: I think the most challenging aspect is understanding the complexities of the technical issues involved in certain cases. While I don’t have the expertise and training to address all of the environmental issues I encounter, I work closely with environmental consultants and experts in the field to understand the technical aspects involved in my cases.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone hoping to enter your practice area?
Alan: Beyond completing a wide range of foundational legal coursework, I would recommend taking at least a couple of classes or CLEs on environmental and land use law. In particular, as a junior attorney, I found the Environmental Law Institute’s three-day “boot camp” provided a useful overview of federal environmental law. Internship experiences also can be invaluable in helping students learn the new language of the environmental field and, at times, obtain a distinct substantive perspective from what their first full-time job might offer.
LeAnn: I would suggest taking administrative law (I wish I had) and environmental law while in law school. Some of the more technical issues will require on-the-job training and experience. I still find myself learning new things all the time. Of course, you may find it beneficial to work in a state or federal environmental regulatory agency—but it’s not a prerequisite.
What misconceptions exist about your practice area? What do you wish you had known before joining your practice area?
Alan: Before beginning to practice, I had not fully appreciated how closely related environmental, land use, and real estate law are, especially in California. To take one example, the central land use statute in the state arguably is the California Environmental Quality Act. Those unfamiliar with the process sometimes are caught off guard by the central role environmental review can play in project approvals.
LeAnn: I believe the biggest misconception is that because we represent industries we are in some way “anti-environment.” That is simply untrue. We assist our clients in complying with the laws and regulations imposed on them. We are in no way the “bad guys.”
What is unique about your practice area at your firm?
Alan: Unlike many practice areas, mine offers the chance to undertake a wide range of substantive legal work all unified by the common thread of being necessary for land development projects. Some lawyers only negotiate transactional documents, others only litigate, while still others focus on administrative proceedings. My practice area encompasses all three elements, as well as client counseling. Over time, I have noticed more clients coming to my firm for comprehensive legal services in several areas (e.g., real estate and counseling).
LeAnn: Perkins has one of the largest national grassroots environmental practices. Our lawyers have the experience, depth and breadth to address all environmental and natural resource issues. When I first started practicing, environmental law was not a widely recognized practice area and I was limited in my specialty. Now I have the experience and resources to be able to tackle a broad range of issues for my clients.
What activities do you enjoy when you are not in the office, and how do you make time for them?
Alan: I enjoy spending time outside in nature, as befits an environmental lawyer. Hiking is one of my favorite activities. I also like taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by living in a city, among them dining out and going on “urban hikes” across the quaint neighborhoods and intense hills of San Francisco. I find scheduling enjoyable activities in advance is the best way to make time for them, as free time somehow seems to materialize that way.
LeAnn: I enjoy travelling, skiing, and tennis. I believe that taking time to relax and recharge is important, so I make it a priority. I try to plan my vacations around lulls in my work, but that is not always possible. I am fortunate to work with a reliable and capable team of professionals and can rely on them to step in and provide support to our clients in my absence.
Alan Murphy and LeAnn Johnson Koch, Partners—Environment, Energy & Resources
Alan Murphy is a partner in Perkins Coie’s San Francisco office. He focuses his practice on land use matters and the environmental review associated with development projects. Alan advises clients in preparing development applications both during the approval process and in the due diligence period. He identifies innovative solutions to complex and politically sensitive development challenges and appears before local decision-making bodies and appellate boards. He also defends clients in environmental and land use litigation.
LeAnn Johnson Koch, a member of the Environment, Energy & Resources practice, has over 20 years of experience representing the petroleum refining industry and related industries on environmental matters. LeAnn’s practice focuses on compliance counseling, enforcement defense, high profile permitting, rulemaking challenges, and responding to environmental emergencies including oil spills, explosions, and fires. LeAnn counsels clients on a variety of fuels issues including the renewable fuel standard, low sulfur gasoline, diesel, and exhaust toxics. LeAnn also represents clients on mobile source emissions issues including vehicle and engine certification, mobile source compliance counseling, and defending mobile source enforcement actions.