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    June 11, 2008  
 
 

CLIMATE CHANGE:
NEXT BIG PRACTICE?


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Just as Mother Nature turned up the heat on Washington, we gathered a cast of Managing Partners at Smith & Wollensky to talk about the latest law firm trends. Given the mercury levels, it wasn’t surprising that talk turned to climate change practices. The full crew:

  • Scott Bolden, DC Managing Partner, Reed Smith
  • Bobby Burchfield, DC Co-Partner-in Charge, McDermott Will & Emery
  • Laurin Mills, DC Managing Partner, Nixon Peabody
  • Phil Leibow, Global Head of Law Firm Practice, Jones Lang LaSalle
  • John Niehoff, Head of Legal Practice, Beers + Cutler
 

From left: Bobby, Phil, John, Scott, and Laurin. Phil and John, we should note, aren’t just awesome Bisnow sponsors, but two of DC’s top experts on law firm real estate and accounting.

 
Bisnow: What’s a big emerging practice area?
   
Laurin: The one I see is climate change. Under the Warner-Lieberman bill, there could be a market in carbon tax credits. That could be a big practice if the country brings itself near alignment with the Kyoto protocols.
   
Bisnow: Over the next two years, what would be the steps in developing a climate change practice?
   
Bobby: Law firms go through this exercise all the time. We’ve recently done it in connection with sub-prime issues. Typically you identify people in the firm with relevant expertise and put them together to think about the business opportunities. Then you look at your client list to determine who might be interested and begin making contacts to let them know you offer help in the area. 
   
Laurin: Right, you have to pull different people together to address these new areas. There are a lot of tax-credit-driven practices around. Some of them are skills from commoditized work that you can take from older practices and cram into a new area. 
 
Bobby: I’ve been practicing since ’79, and we’ve seen that before. For example there was deregulation in the airlines, which then came to energy, then telecom. When I first started the hot issue was energy law. There was heavy regulation, price controls and so forth. Much of that went away over the course of time, but now there’s talk of bringing it back.
   
Scott: For us, it’s the international aspect that’s growing. We have clients exploring energy opportunities in Africa. For example, they’re talking about getting a huge power plant, financed by African countries that have formed a coalition to provide power to adjacent countries. That takes a lot of securities, finance and so forth. I think the energy practice is going to grow and grow in a lot of different areas.
   
Bisnow: Do you have an ad hoc approach to starting new practices or something more systematic, like committees?
   
Laurin: With climate change, we have a group of environmental lawyers looking at it. We’re calling it our “climate change initiative,” but it’s hard to structure something because you don’t know what the lay of the land is going to be. 
   
Bobby: I’d agree, it’s too early to say which direction it’s going to take. At this point there’s lobbying work and corporate counseling about which side of the fence to be on. But if carbon credit trading becomes as significant here as it is around the world, there’ll be financial consequences to that and substantial new practice opportunities. 
   
Bisnow: Is climate change work an offshoot of existing environmental work or a stand-alone practice?
   
Laurin: It’s more than an offshoot. Carbon tax credit trading isn’t anything like what environmental lawyers do. We have a lot of experience with affordable housing tax credits, wind tax credits, other new markets tax credits. It’s a natural blending of different practice areas.
 
Bisnow: Are you generally open to any new revenue opportunity, or might you say, Well, that’s interesting work but it doesn’t really fit our business plan?
   
Scott: To a point, I think we’re all open to it if it makes money. One of the really growing practices is FDA work. We’ve got a strong healthcare regulatory group firm-wide, but that’s a clear example of the market driving growth. We’re actively recruiting FDA lawyers because we want to have a complete healthcare practice. 
   
Bisnow: Are new practices also a useful recruiting tool? Do they energize summer associates who want to be on the cutting edge?
   
Laurin:

Well, no one wants to come here and do railroad work.

   
Scott:

Not a good career move.

   
Bobby: At least not today.

 


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