Law firms making green push: Environmental teams provide marketing boost

The next generation of environmental law is coming to a firm near you.

Many law firms have existing practices that counsel clients on the complexities of complying with air and water permits or cleaning up contaminated properties. But now that the corporate sector is embracing “green” initiatives quicker than Al Gore accumulates carbon credits, environmental law is becoming as sexy as, say, intellectual property.

Two of the city’s largest firms-Ice Miller LLP and Baker & Daniels LLP-recently unveiled so-called “green” teams to tackle evolving issues that might relate to the state’s burgeoning ethanol industry, for instance.

Rivals are sure to follow suit, said Jennifer Thompson, a Bingham McHale LLP partner who chairs the Indianapolis Bar Association’s environmental law section.

“I can tell you that other firms, including Bingham McHale, have been working behind the scenes,” she said. “You want to meet the demands of your clients.”

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To be sure, companies acknowledge the strategic advantages they can reap from creating an earth-friendly image. So law firms are beefing up their environmental offerings and promoting them more at a time when media attention to global warming is reaching a near-fever pitch.

Yet, for all the resources firms are devoting to “green” matters, it’s still too early to measure the impact of their efforts. For the most part, the triad of Ice Miller, Baker & Daniels and Bingham McHale wouldn’t produce specifics about projects or clients, citing confidentiality rules that prohibit details from being released yet.

One of Ice Miller’s clients is Joe Whitsett, a former real estate lawyer at the firm who last year formed the Whitsett Group, an affordable housing developer. He sought his old firm when applying for environmental grants from the government.

Scores of grants and tax breaks are available for “green” technologies ranging from high-efficiency lighting systems, solar applications and Energy Star designations doled out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The program recognizes buildings for reducing their energy bills and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Whitsett is constructing housing developments at 34th Street and Central Avenue and on 25th Street just west of Keystone Avenue. The latter is a senior housing partnership with Oasis of Hope Development Corp.

“I hope they’re all jumping into this,” Whitsett said of the law firms, “because it could be good for our state, in terms of jobs and energy efficiency.”

Ice Miller and Baker & Daniels haven’t hired additional lawyers to buttress their rosters. Rather, they’ve pooled roughly 10 to 15 attorneys from several practice areas, which might include the real estate, tax, or insurance groups, to assist with affairs they say transcend typical environmental law practices.

The development of an ethanol plant, for example, might need financing or zoning approval, and tax credits and incentives might be available for renewable energy projects such as a wind farm.

Baker & Daniels spent about 18 months compiling its green team before officially introducing it in December. The group includes about 15 lawyers from the firm’s Indianapolis office and 10 consultants from its B&D Consulting arm in Washington, D.C. Co-chairs are Terry Hall, a commercial transactions and business restructuring attorney, and Andy Ehrlich, a senior vice president at the consultancy.

Consultants will lobby members of the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture, as well as lawmakers, to provide clients the latest on “green” policy, they said.

Some of Baker & Daniels’ clients are big investors in ethanol and biodiesel construction projects. Others in the manufacturing, environmental public policy, development and health care sectors also are becoming more interested in climate issues as well, they said.

For its part, Baker & Daniels is moving its Washington, D.C., operations into an office building designed to meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Standard. Better known as LEED, it’s a benchmark of sorts for designing, building and operating environmentally friendly buildings. The building should be finished next January.

“It’s something we’re taking seriously on our own as a law firm,” Ehrlich said, “and as individuals.”

Ice Miller is making a similar environmental push. Kristina Tridico, a partner in the firm’s environmental and corporate mergers and acquisitions practice groups, leads its “green industries initiative.”

The firm’s latest endeavor provides counsel on matters relating to financing for development, tax credits for renewable energy projects, compliance issues involving green development and clean technology, and renewable energy and carbon credits.

Besides environmental law, the team of 10 has experience with tax and venture financing arrangements, and real estate, energy and intellectual property issues.

Ice Miller is a founding sponsor of the Indiana Sustainability Alliance, a statewide network whose mission is to bring together businesses and individuals involved with clean technology, sustainable development and renewable energy.

“Businesses are becoming more sensitive and conscious about these issues,” said Byron Myers, an Ice Miller managing partner. “Clearly, this is something that will be on the forefront indefinitely.”

Even so, Curt DeVoe, a partner at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP, questioned their marketing strategies. Plews Shadley was founded as a local environmental law boutique firm in 1988.

“To us, the ‘going green’ label is nothing but that-it’s a label,” he said. “It’s a new name for something we’ve been doing since the very beginning, so we’ve really not adopted the label, per se.”

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