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Passion within reason: profiling environmental lawyers

Editor's Desk

What drives environmental lawyers to do their work? Clearly, part of it is passion, and anyone who has met such a lawyer would likely say, with a laugh, that “it isn’t the money.”

But those who are passionate about a cause, some may say, often come across as self-righteous or even radical. Environmentalists can be single-minded and unrealistic, constantly predicting doomsday scenarios where the earth is ravaged by human greed.

And while I personally empathize with environmental concerns, I was also cognizant of the reputation of the environmental movement as we considered profiling these lawyers. I knew some of our readers might be less sympathetic or might have had clients who were negatively affected by environmental regulation. I wanted the writer to push these lawyers to see if their passion was truly backed up with facts.

As our cover story shows, my skepticism was misplaced. These lawyers have a truly nuanced, yet still passionate, appreciation of the complexity involved with defending our planet. They are far too sophisticated to simplify anything they are working on. Despite the fact that they operate in an adversarial system, where parties are pitted against each other and self-interest often triumphs, these lawyers can manage to be creative and get things done.

Lisa Mitchell, an environmental lawyer in Halifax, cites the first private prosecution in Nova Scotia on an environmental issue she helped initiate, which eventually prompted the province’s Public Prosecution Service to take over the case.

Theresa McClenaghan, who appears on our cover and heads the Canadian Environmental Law Association, says government is often calling on the CELA to join advisory committees or give input on a particular law reform initiative.

Private sector lawyers are also regularly asking for help with pleadings or research. Environmental issues may be litigated in an adversarial setting, but, in reality, the work often involves consensus building and practical compromise.

As my stereotype of environmental lawyers was debunked, I was reminded of a compelling story in The New Yorker entitled “Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington.” While the facts of the story are complex, it essentially recounts how the famous financier Carl Icahn, after being appointed a special adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year, spent much of his time trying to dismantle an environmental rule meant to promote the use of ethanol and other biofuels. This rule just happened to also negatively affect a company in which he had a controlling stake.

Icahn was unsuccessful, partly because the original law had a broad cross-section of supporters — including environmentalists, national security hawks, farm-state lawmakers and even the American Petroleum Institute. Getting the original law passed was likely a monumental consensus-building exercise, and Icahn’s single-minded pursuit to overturn it was not enough to get it reversed. No doubt some smart environmentalists were consulted when it was passed to ensure it would last.

While the Icahn story is far removed from the day-to-day concerns of Canada’s environmental lawyers, it does provide an interesting contrast. It shows that belief in a cause, while important, needs to be accompanied by many other traits.

In other words, passion may drive these environmental lawyers, but it isn’t enough for them to get the job done. They need reason, doggedness and a willingness to be creative to truly defend the environment in an effective way.