We caught up with Paul W. Edmondson, VP and General Counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, days after he’d been to Moscow and St. Petersburg to meet with a team of Russian preservationists who are eager to tap into American know-how for their own work.
“It was very interesting and very exhausting,” Edmondson admits. “I was there 15 years ago and there have been tremendous changes. They have many of the same issues, in terms of preserving historic resources, that any growing economy does, and they have a huge number of historic structures in need of preservation.”
Whirlwind flights to Russia? Fighting to save international historic landmarks? This is not your run-of-the mill GC position. Then again, Edmondson, who joined the Trust’s legal staff 19 years ago after graduating from American University with a law degree, isn’t your average lawyer. The son of a career Foreign Service officer, Edmondson grew up in Africa and DC before heading to Ithaca, N.Y., where he studied archaeology at Cornell. For him, law, and specifically working for the Trust, was an easy choice.
“Public service was the theme of my father’s career, and it seemed a natural thing to do,” he says.
Mary Westbrook recently talked to Edmondson for Bisnow on Business.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is something most people have heard of, but might not understand exactly.
We are a nonprofit chartered in 1949 by the government to help save America’s historic places. We have a budget of about $50 million and 300 employees, mostly in DC but we have seven field offices. In recent years, we’ve also established several subsidiaries, particularly to do preservation-related development. The original concept for the Trust was very much focused on owning and operating historic sites, although that has evolved over the years. While there are a number of National Trust Historic Sites open to the public – around 30 – the majority of our activities are in public education, advocacy, technical assistance, encouraging economic development through preservation, and working with government.
What’s the Trust’s legal department look like?
I have a team of eight lawyers and one legal assistant. Two of the lawyers are part time. We do corporate work, litigation and administrative advocacy with agencies over historic properties, and we also have an educational component. For instance, one of my lawyers oversees publications about historic preservation law. I also have an architect on my staff because the GC office is responsible for administering easements. Another one of the positions in my office now is an entirely grant-funded position – a lawyer who works on legal issues involving threats to cultural resources on public lands, particularly Native American archaeological or historic sites.
That’s a fairly large legal staff, given the size of the organization. Why so big?
For one thing, we handle the majority of our corporate work in-house. Of course, where there are special issues or the need for special knowledge – employment issues or licensing and trademark issues - we work with outside counsel, very often pro bono. Since we have issues all over the country, we often use local counsel, too. Then, in addition to corporate work, we have a very active program of legal advocacy, education and outreach – again, teaming in-house lawyers with outside pro bono counsel.
What's been the most interesting case you've worked on?
One is Ford Island, the historic heart of Pearl Harbor, which several years ago was the subject of a major development proposal. Our legal team has worked hard to establish a productive relationship with the Navy to protect places like that. Another issue we’ve been dealing with lately is Finca Vígia, Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba. We’ve been working with the Hemingway Preservation Foundation in Boston to get an architectural team down there to develop a preservation plan for the site, with cooperation from both U.S. and Cuban authorities. Hurricane Katrina is another example. The storm had a tremendously devastating effect on historic resources in the Gulf, and the Trust has been very active trying to preserve neighborhoods. That work has generated lots of legal questions – ranging from the potential liability of volunteers to determining the legal standards for demolishing storm-damaged landmarks.
What are the biggest issues you wrestle with?
Funding is always tight in a nonprofit world. Resources are limited. You can’t be shy about asking for assistance or asking people to waive their fees.
Whom do you work with for outside counsel?
We have a list of about 25 firms that we work with regularly on a pro bono basis – some on corporate issues and others for litigation and legal advocacy.
How do you divide your work time?
It’s a complete mix. Sixty percent of my practice is in the corporate area, 30 percent is in advocacy and 10 percent in education, a lot of speaking engagements and so on. But that varies from day to day. I think the mix is reflective of the organization and its commitment to a strong in-house team. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
How has the legal department’s work changed since you started?
Our legal advocacy work has expanded gradually over the years. We’re the go-to place when the bulldozers appear at someone’s doorstep and people don’t know what to do. We help people get legal assistance.
How have you learned the business side of your job?
I was the deputy for the previous GC for a number of years, and he was a wonderful mentor. That was very important. The rest of it – well, one simply develops those skills as one proceeds.
Best part of your job?
Getting out in the field and seeing the historic resources we’re talking about firsthand – a building or a town or a battlefield. The hands-on part of it is a lot of fun.