New EPA regulations are shaking up legal industry

New regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency are shaking up the legal industry, prompting small energy boutique firms to join larger law firms for their greater resources and broader legal expertise that corporations will need when navigating the new rules.

The latest move is by District-based energy firm Brickfield Burchette Ritts & Stone, which last week lost about half its attorneys — eight in Washington and three in Austin — to Holland & Knight, a 1,000-lawyer international law firm. The departing attorneys include one of the firm’s founding partners, William Burchette, who said that the new EPA rules are likely to prompt more large law firms to absorb energy boutiques like his former firm.

The EPA regulation released last month aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants by up to 30 percent by 2030. The rule is meant to implement part of the Clean Air Act, the federal law that regulates air emissions, and gives states some flexibility in how to meet those standards.

“The new regulations are turning the electric utility industry upside down,” Burchette said. “Many coal plants are going to be shut down, potentially, and the cost of power is going to go up significantly by virtue of the regulations. You have to be able to work your way through all that.”

Last year, Bruder, Gentile & Marcoux, a 10-attorney Washington energy boutique firm that represented Pepco, Dominion and other regional gas and electric utilities in energy regulatory matters, was absorbed by mid-size Chicago firm Schiff Hardin. It was one of the last remaining energy boutique firms in D.C. that represented corporate energy clients.

Being part of a larger law firm means access to attorneys who specialize in parts of environmental laws that a smaller firm simply cannot duplicate, but that are necessary to hang onto clients, Burchette said.

“In our situation, we know we’re going to need more expertise in coping with the EPA regulations than we currently have,” Burchette said. “There are lawyers who specialize in one particular section of the Clean Air Act. A small firm cannot do that, whereas a larger firm can.”

The move also connects them with Holland & Knight’s large federal lobbying team. Holland & Knight in Washington is known primarily for its public policy group, which is one of the 10 top-earning lobby firms on K Street.

“We feel strongly that having lobbying capability in D.C. is essential to being effective,” Burchette said.

Prior to the split, Brickfield Burchette was largely divided into two practice areas: Burchette’s expertise, which is representing small utility companies across the United States on corporate matters including mergers and acquisitions and regulatory compliance, and a somewhat separate group representing large industrial companies such as steel manufacturers. The utility group went to Holland & Knight while the industrial side stayed with Brickfield Burchette because of client conflicts with Holland, Burchette said.

The two firms had been in talks since late last year. Rich Gold, head of Holland & Knight’s public policy and regulatory practice, said the new groups complete the firm’s months-long efforts to bulk up its energy practice. Over the past two years, Holland has opened offices in Mexico City and Colombia, which handle corporate work in the oil and gas industries, and in June opened an Anchorage office after hiring eight former Patton Boggs attorneys there who represent major energy producers.

“We see this as one of the last pieces to reach critical mass in our energy practice,” Gold said.

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for the Capital Business section of The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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