PODCASTEnvironmentally Speaking EP 18: Hiring an Environmental Attorney

December 14, 20210

Woolly Mammoth! That got your attention, didn’t it. We start the show off by putting Marissa in the hot seat and after a few laughs, we dive into this week’s topic of, questions you should ask when you’re looking to hire an environmental or land use attorney. Take a listen to the things you should be asked and where you should look when hiring an Environmental Attorney.

Transcript: Hiring an Environmental Attorney

CLARICE: All right. Hi, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Environmentally Speaking.MARISA: I’m Marisa Desautel an attorney with a few decades of experience.

CLARICE: And I’m Clarice coming in with your questions, topics, and things to discuss.

MARISA: I’m laughing over here silently because we haven’t recorded one of these because of Thanksgiving. It’s been a little late. You just pointed at me to start and I had no idea what was happening.

CLARICE: The fact that we’re on episode 18 and we’re like, I don’t know. We’ll start it some way.

MARISA: It doesn’t matter. I’m just awkward.

CLARICE: There is no formula.


CLARICE: So before we hop into our topic, I am going to put you on the hot seat.

MARISA: Uh-oh.

CLARICE: I want your take on something. I want a live take. So I was listening to this podcast called Science Versus and it is a science podcast for folks like me who don’t fully understand science who are newly learning. They did kind of a funny episode of science versus Jurassic Park and it was talking about is the science in Jurassic Park real, could it happen, you know, just kind of going through if that could be a thing. And apparently the most recent – I think it was a council for climate change or a climate change conference in Glasgow, a company introduced the idea of bringing back the woolly mammoth to help prevent the ice age. Have you heard of this?

MARISA: I did hear of it.

CLARICE: And as I was listening, I was instantly disappointed and I’m going to quickly disappoint all of our listeners. They’re not going to bring back the woolly mammoth. There are trying to use [inaudible] to genetically modify an elephant to be super hairy, withstand the cold. They way it can walk around the arctic and stomp on the snow, compacting it into ice, helping prevent more melting. Immediate thoughts, like blind reaction, what do you –

MARISA: That’s dumb stuff.

CLARICE: It’s the craziest idea I’ve ever heard of.

MARISA: That’s dumb.

CLARICE: It brought me so much joy to know that there’s somebody out there like copying and pasting to make a fuzzy elephant and I really just want to see one in my lifetime. I don’t think it’s going to work, but selfishly I want to see a teddy bear crossed with an elephant.

MARISA: I’m giving you the slow blink.

CLARICE: Guys, thank God this is a podcast. She looks so disappointed in me. I had to bring it up. It was the craziest thing I had ever heard. So I’m going to turn that into a segue into today’s topic. Today we’re going to talk about what questions you should ask when you’re looking to hire an environmental – or I guess environmental or land use attorney. And I think the first question might be not to ask them what they think of the upcoming elephants.

[0:03:25] MARISA: Yeah. I’d say you don’t want to ask that. All right. Get it together. Okay. So I’m just – I’m laughing so hard, number one, because that’s ridiculously funny, but also, number two, because I just have this vision of Greta Thunberg in my head [inaudible] how dare you, how dare you. Yeah. So in terms of figuring out if you need an environmental attorney, I mean, it’s pretty –

CLARICE: [inaudible] okay, guys.

MARISA: I’m not recovering.

CLARICE: There are no more blind reactions on this podcast. We tried it once. It was too overwhelming.

MARISA: I am not recovering. Okay. Okay. Our marketing people are not going to be happy with this episode.

CLARICE: [inaudible].

MARISA: So for residential, this actually just came up today, so let me see if I can refocus myself here. For residential property owners, I think it’s a little bit easier for them to make a determination about when they need an environmental or land use attorney because it’s right there. It’s your house. You see it every day and on the weekend you’re faced with whatever issue is environmental in nature and land use permitting in nature.

So we get phone calls from people that say, this is what’s going on. I’ve got wetlands on my property or on my neighbor’s property. I don’t think they should be built on, but I don’t know. I don’t know. Like here’s the history. Here’s what I think happened before DEM or the CRMC. Here’s what’s happening at the town level. Can you help me? So they have kind of a feeling that there’s an environmental element that needs to be addressed, but of course they don’t know what the environmental issue is. So with residential, I think it’s a little bit easier to make that phone call, that judgment, and that phone call.

For commercial property owners, they’re generally savvy in the context of what’s called the due diligence process which I think we talked about in a previous podcast. And when there’s a traditional lending institution involved in a sale and purchase and sale transaction, the lending institution will tell the seller and the buyer what they need. All that is very regulated. So there’s more history about environmental and land use matters for commercial property than there is for residential. So that’s my initial thought and I think that the specific question that you had was, you know, what are the vetting questions that you should ask.

[0:06:19] CLARICE: Yeah.

MARISA: Is that right?

CLARICE: Yeah. If somebody is – you know like you said, they’ve got this problem that’s on their property, or, you know, the worst-case scenario you get a notice of violation or something’s come up and you know you have this environmental or land or, you know, some sort of property issue and you think that you need an attorney what do you do? Other than Googling I wouldn’t have any idea what good next steps are. It’s almost like the family doctor. You don’t know what you’re looking for, but you know your parents went to this doctor, so you go to that doctor and it just goes down the line. Except people don’t have environmental attorneys that they just know to go to. How do we even begin this process?

MARISA: Well, most people know an attorney and I think going to an attorney and saying, hey, I need a referral or a recommendation, what do you think. Usually, there are networks of attorneys that focus on a particular area and other attorneys will ask around. There’s a Listserv in Rhode Island that occurs via e-mail, so you could always – if you’re looking for a particular type of attorney, inquiries go out on the Listserv. So I’d say starting – if you think you have an environmental issue, reaching out to an attorney that you know is a good idea.

We do get inquiries from people that find us on Google and we’ve got a strong social media presence in terms of putting out content that is relevant to environmental land use and energy law, so word of mouth in that context is big. Those are the main areas that we receive inquiries from. Given all of that but also pushing that aside for a moment, if you’re looking for an environmental attorney or you’ve got an environmental issue the questions that you should be asking are, firstly, where is the property located. And that will tell you generally speaking which government entity has jurisdiction.

We previously in another podcast talked about the difference between the Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council. They’re agencies with similar purviews but separate jurisdictional areas. So if you’ve got a property along the coast, it’s going to be CRMC because they’re a coastal agency. If you’ve got a property further inland or very far north in the state like Burrillville or North Smithfield, you’re going to be dealing with DEM. So that’s a good first question to ask. And then you want to take a look at the individual attorney’s experience before those agencies and with those agencies and, in my case, working for those agencies. So those are some good first steps and first questions to ask, I mean.

[0:09:14] CLARICE: And I think maybe this might go without saying, but at the very base level whoever you’re reaching out to looking for possible legal help, ask them if they’re licensed in that state I think just as a general basic question that you should ask any attorney. You know, if you’re from Mass even though Rhode Island is on the border not all Rhode Island attorneys are licensed in both Rhode Island and Mass or vice versa. So, I mean, I’m sure most attorneys post it on their website. They’ll say all of the places in which, you know, they’re licensed in. Check there. Make sure as a very first entry level maybe even before you even start just check that box first.

MARISA: Yeah. Good point.

CLARICE: So then once you find a Rhode Island attorney that you think might be able to help you with – I don’t know. I almost want to like create a scenario like you have a flooded backyard or something that’s happened just so I can like picture it in my head. But once you find that attorney and you figure out what area you’re in, what would you do next? What are some things that you would want to make sure that attorney is comfortable working with or has – maybe preexisting knowledge isn’t the right word — but has experience with.

MARISA: Asking around is always a really good idea. For example, if it’s a municipal issue, if you know that you’ve got an issue before, I don’t know, the town Foster where I’m from, generally speaking it’s a good idea that that attorney has experience because each municipality is so completely different. They’ve got different personalities, different comprehensive plan goals, different zoning ordinances, different – not procedures because those are set by the state really. But if I had an issue where I live in Portsmouth now, I would want to find an attorney that had experience working with that municipality or at least on Aquidneck Island.

Unfortunately it’s Rhode Island so things can be – representation can be regional. You’ve got folks that only work on Aquidneck Island, or you’ve got folks that only do work in Providence and the surrounding areas or only in northern Rhode Island, so that is a factor. But you can find out the question to those answers a lot of times by just asking around. So we’re getting back to if you know an attorney and you need a referral, check with the attorney.

Google is a great resource, too. Google now has a rating program where even attorneys are getting stars or no stars, whatever it is. I mean, you got to take that with a grain of salt. It’s the internet. But there are ways to vet an attorney online. You could also check the Rhode Island Bar Association. They’re a good resource and will be able to tell you if an attorney is in good standing. They won’t be able to report back on their success rates, of course, but they’ll at least be able to tell you whether or not the attorney has had previous disciplinary actions or other types of ethics consideration issues.

[0:12:34] CLARICE: That’s another good resource, too, that people don’t think about. People often think that the R.I. Bar Association website is only for attorneys, but there is a ton of resources on there for, one, if you’re – shifting gears a little bit – if you’re looking for work, you know, paralegal or a firm or something like that, there are job postings up there. There are attorneys who have advertising on there. There’s a list of attorneys, so you can always check to see who’s there and a lot of times they’ll include – maybe it’s just a line or two but a really quick blurb of what their practice focus is. So it’s not just for attorneys to use as a resource. I didn’t figure that out until mid law school that there’s more than just – it’s more than just the attorneys only club in there.

MARISA: Yeah. Good point.

CLARICE: All right. Now flipping the conversation a little bit. What are some things that you would need that you should have ready because obviously you’ve got questions for whoever you’d want to hire as an attorney, but they’re going to have questions back to understand what your situation is. Are there things that before you reach out to an attorney that you should have prepared on your end?

MARISA: Yes. The first thing and important thing is that the attorney’s office is going to have to run a conflict check to make sure that representing you will not conflict with another existing or previous client that they’ve represented. So having obviously your name, the opposing party’s name, and the property address that you’re dealing with is really important. So having that information ready and available when you make the call is a good idea so that the attorney can run that conflict check right away.

CLARICE: Anything else they should have ready?

MARISA: A short recitation of the facts. Depending on personality type we either get pages and pages and pages of material to review, or we get a phone call and it’s, yeah, I don’t know much about it and I think this is the property address. So it kind of depends on personality type. Some folks feel better having more input. Other folks are happy to just hire the attorney and get themselves out of dealing with the situation themselves, so it kind of depends. And a good attorney will recognize that and cater to whatever the client feels more comfortable doing.

CLARICE: Another thing I would add, too, is if you’ve received – this is a situation where there’s an action possibly against you. If you’ve received any documentation of it, as the relationship develops and if it continues to the point of you do hire that person, do make sure to have those somewhat at the ready because that paralegal, that attorney is going to want to look at what’s already been done, what history has already taken place in the case because if there’s already an action and we’re coming in towards the middle or afterwards it saves us a little bit of time to get a quick history. And knowing that you have to get that and getting that earlier saves you the headache later.

[0:15:50] MARISA: Yeah.

CLARICE: There’s definitely been a few times where people are like, I have some paperwork, but I think I put it in a box after the flood and now it’s stuck under another box [inaudible] either paying in time to dig out those boxes under a time crunch and that’s always stressful or, you know, we have to go and hunt it down.


CLARICE: We’re happy to do that. That’s part of the job, but, you know, you kind of have to weigh that work.

MARISA: Yeah. Agreed. So I think that was a good broad overview without getting into the details of what it’s like to represent a particular client in a particular case. Those are some good considerations for people that are feeling overwhelmed or unsure about whether they need an environmental attorney and if they do how do you find one. That was my goal today.

CLARICE: So I guess the big takeaway is, you know, everybody most likely does know an attorney or knows somebody who knows one. Feel free to reach out to them and ask them if they have any recommendations in that field. If they don’t particularly work in it, Rhode Island is small enough where we all do know each other.

MARISA: Yeah. All right.

CLARICE: Well, on that note, guys, thank you all for listening. If you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you’d want to send our way, sent it to Help@DesautelESQ.com.

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