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Beveridge & Diamond is out to grow its environmental practice across the country, and high rates at big firms are helping them do it. In the past five years or so, environmental work has started to trickle to smaller firms, much like other practices that don’t command top dollar, such as employment or media. Often it’s because rates at these firms are up to 30 percent lower than larger firms. “Lawyers at big firms have to go to firm management to ask permission to lower their rates � we’re taking advantage of that,” said Gary Smith, managing director of Beveridge’s San Francisco office. “It provides a great opportunity for us to seek out great people from around the country that we can use to grow our practices.” Recently, the firm recruited partners Nicholas van Aelstyn and Kenneth Finney and associate Ryan Tacorda from Heller Ehrman. Thomas Donnelly, Heller’s environmental litigation group co-chairman, said that while he doesn’t attribute the trickle strictly to rates, he has seen a change in the type of work his firm does. “We’ll handle bigger cases where the stakes are higher,” Donnelly said. “The advantage a big firm has over a small firm is we are full-service. We can litigate a client’s environmental matters, advise on compliance issues, but also assist real estate clients when environmental issues come up.” Donnelly said routine regulatory compliance matters, such as the storage of hazardous waste, are now handled by environmental consultants, in-house managers and smaller firms. Not only is the work changing, the numbers are thinning. Heller today has fewer lawyers practicing environmental law on a full-time basis, Donnelly said � roughly 15 attorneys. But Michele Corash, who heads Morrison & Foerster’s environmental practice group, said size doesn’t matter. MoFo’s environmental group, with about 40 lawyers, has grown by roughly 30 percent in the Bay Area over the past few years. Corash said the firm keeps billing rates variable, ranging from $200 per hour to $625. The claims also have a wide range, anywhere from between $50,000 and $500 million in penalties. “Clients don’t care what the billing rate is,” Corash said. “They care what it costs them to deal with a problem.” Despite the numbers game, Donnelly said more high-end environmental work will be ripe for the taking on the international stage as China wakes up to its pollution and water shortage problems and the European Union begins to face challenges to its newly developed environmental standards. Locally, Donnelly said the high-stakes work will be in the allocation of natural resources, such as water in California and the West. While the bigger firms chase global work, the little guys keep the focus local. The three-lawyer San Francisco boutique, Ebbin, Moser & Skaggs, does nothing but natural resources compliance and regulatory work, with some related litigation. Two of its founding partners left larger firms four years ago to strike out on their own. Marc Ebbin, previously with Beveridge & Diamond, said the three thought there was a place for a highly specialized practice on the market. Ebbin said the firm advises governments, counties, major utilities, universities and tribes and expects more work from these areas as the state and federal agencies begin to tackle environmental issues from a broader perspective. “Local governments and cities are starting to put together more comprehensive plans and compliance approaches than in the past,” when they treated issues such as water quality and endangered species on a case-by-case basis. While some work may have shifted to small firms, Donnelly said there’s still a future for the environmental practice at the big firm. “Companies that face high-stakes environmental litigation will still turn to big firms to litigate those cases,” he said. “If there’s an end to environmental work at big firms, then I’d better look for another career,” Donnelly said. “And I’m not.”

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