Lawyer Limelight: Michael Gerrard

By January 5, 2012Lawyer Limelights
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Photo provided by Arnold & Porter

Michael Gerrard was a natural selection for our list of Finalists for the upcoming Lawdragon 500 guide, given our goal of recognizing lawyers who work on the cutting edge of the legal profession. Gerrard was a star environmental lawyer at Arnold & Porter and head of its New York office before departing the partnership at the end of 2008 for Columbia Law School, where he is the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice.

Gerrard made the move to found and direct the law school’s Center for Climate Change Law. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the timeliness of climate issues, Gerrard says there has been a positive response to the center and his classes. In addition to training students in the field, the center has helpful databases that track developments in climate change laws and regulations.

Lawdragon: Why did you make the move to leave private practice at this stage in your career?

Michael Gerrard: I had been practicing for thirty years and things were going very well – I had a thriving practice and was partner in charge of my firm’s 110-year-old New York office. However, I had also always enjoyed writing (I have written or edited seven books) and teaching (I had been an adjunct professor for years). In the last several years I had devoted much attention to climate change and came to believe it was a massive problem.

The opportunity unexpectedly arose to become a law professor, start up a Center for Climate Change Law, and devote most of my time to this important issue. By then our kids were out of college, our house was almost paid for, and my wife and I decided we could probably manage this move. So I gulped hard – very hard – and took the plunge.

LD: What has been the most difficult part of the transition so far?

MG: I have a full teaching load, with courses on environmental law, climate change law, and energy law. It is astonishingly time-consuming to teach a course for the first time. (You didn’t ask, but the easiest part of the transition so far is not having to fill out a time sheet every day.)

LD: What is your relationship with Arnold & Porter now?

MG: I am now Senior Counsel to Arnold & Porter. I work for them about one day a week, handling litigation matters and counseling for clients. I still have an office there. I am very happy to keep a hand in real life practice and to stay associated with a terrific firm.

LD: What has been the response so far to the Center for Climate Change Law in terms of interest level of the student population and other departments of Columbia that have an interest in climate change?

MG: The result has been enormously positive. When I initially said I wanted to teach a course on climate change law, the registrar’s office assigned me a classroom with 20 seats; I said I might need something larger. They gave me a 60-seat classroom, and I had 60 students (of whom 45 were in the law school and 15 in other graduate departments in the university). My seminar on energy law had 18 slots; 130 students tried to sign up. I have a lot of law student and undergraduate volunteers working for me. I also have a joint appointment to the faculty of Columbia’s Earth Institute, which allows me to spend a good deal of time with the scientists, economists and others on the university faculty.

LD: I’m sure our readers will be interested in learning more about the center’s databases, given the patchwork of climate-change related litigation and regulatory activity around the world. What was the motivation for doing this?

MG: I started up the U.S. climate litigation database while at Arnold & Porter, and it has proven to be very popular; it is the most-downloaded page on the firm’s web site (http://www.climatecasechart.com). Lawyers all around the world tell me they use it, and many law school classes are told to monitor it.

After coming to Columbia, I realized that there was a real thirst for organized, constantly updated, on-line information, so I started up databases to track U.S. legislative activity, U.S. regulatory activity, and non-U.S. climate litigation. We have also posted a database on legal literature on climate change and one on securities disclosure and greenhouse gases, and several other databases are now in the works. One of the purposes of the center is to help lawyers in the private, governmental, non-profit and academic sectors understand and access legal information in the climate change area, and these databases help serve that purpose.

LD: It must be a great deal of work. Are you interested in lawyers sending you updates on cases or other matters they may be working on?

MG: An Arnold & Porter colleague and several students help create and update these databases –  they are almost all much more computer-savvy than I am. I am always very happy to receive additional cases and other information that should be posted on one of these databases. Several lawyers send me new material for posting, and I hope more will.

LD: It seems like much of the high-profile litigation in recent years targeted the Bush administration. Are we seeing a decrease in climate change litigation initiated by environmental groups and/or states as a result of the change in administrations?

MG: There was a downturn in litigation brought by environmental plaintiffs after the election of Barack Obama, with the high hopes that it would no longer be necessary to sue. But within a few months it became clear that the expectations for swift Congressional action were not being fulfilled, and the plaintiffs – lawsuits are coming back. We are also seeing an onrush of suits by industry seeking to slow down regulation, both at the federal and the state levels.

LD: Do you expect a significant increase in federal congressional action on climate change? What would be the impact of a federal law targeted at greenhouse gas emissions on litigation activity?

MG: There are intense efforts right now to enact climate legislation, or at least energy legislation that would get at the largest emitters. I don’t know whether or not this will succeed. If legislation is enacted, it will lead to a great deal of rulemaking activity, and ensuing litigation, as well as enforcement of the new rules. If legislation is NOT enacted, the environmental groups and states will be utilizing many litigation techniques. Either way, I expect my litigation chart to be growing by the week.

LD: Can you tell our readers how you developed an interest in environmental matters?

MG: I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, a town dominated by the chemical industry. Our house was on the banks of the Kanawha River, which in the 1960s was an industrial sewer. The air and water pollution in Charleston got me interested in environmental issues. I was in college (at Columbia) during the first Earth Day in 1970, further adding to my interest. After graduation I worked for an environmental organization in New York City for two years and observed that much of the most effective work in the area was being done by lawyers, so I decided to go to law school with the objective of being an environmental lawyer. I entered NYU Law School in 1975 and never changed course.

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