This interview with Chelsea Maclean, Associate at Holland & Knight, in San Francisco, was conducted and condensed by Rachel Goodman.
What does it mean to you now to be a lawyer working in public law?
I practice Land Use and Environmental Law at Holland and Knight, a private law firm. I work with developers and investors on development projects from start to finish. I first work with them when they are considering purchasing property. We conduct due diligence to help them understand the current land use and environmental restrictions on a property and what the potential is for the property, if they are considering developing it with some different use. We help them understand what that process will be if they ultimately decide to buy the property. We also help them through the entitlement process to get any federal, state or local permits or approvals they may need. And if the project is sued, we defend the project approvals as well as the environmental review that was conducted.
I also do a fair amount of transactional work: negotiating and drafting agreements with public agencies and other third parties. At all of these stages, I am working hand in hand with federal, state and local government officials. This is part of where the public law comes in. I am helping the developer and the public officials make sure that they are complying with public laws. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is one statute we practice under a lot. The Brown Act for Public Disclosure and Public Meetings is another. And there is also the Subdivision Map Act which dictates how land may be subdivided. In all of these ways I am working in the private sector, but hand in hand with government officials to ensure compliance with public laws. In that sense, there is not that much of a distinction between the work I do and the work of government public lawyers, because substantively the law is the same.
One distinction, however, is the client. In some ways I think I have it a little bit easier in that it is very clear to me who my client is: the development company or investor. Whereas for government lawyers, your client is technically the city or agency, but you are advising the city council, board of supervisors and/or individual staff members. The biggest challenge is learning how to navigate and communicate with your "client."
What was your impression of public law lawyers back when you were a student at UC Hastings?
To answer this really honestly, I do not think I was really aware of who and what public lawyers did. I went to law school thinking I wanted to do environmental law, and my first summer I worked at a public interest environmental law firm. The firm did Clean Water Act litigation for storm water violations. Our work consisted of traditional discovery and litigation. Those lawsuits took several years and the work was what you would think of as traditional environmental law. About half way through law school I became involved in the Center for State and Local Government Law, and that is really where I got my first exposure to public law.
I come from a family of city planners and so when I started to get this exposure through the Center, I quickly realized how familiar public law issues were to me. My family of planners works to implement good planning law and good planning projects and process. I am essentially doing the same thing on the private side.
On family vacations we could never go anywhere without someone in the family pointing out “oh, that is a neat way to plan a park” or “that is a great bench.” You are constantly looking at the world around you and looking at how cities have addressed various issues. I am now doing the exact same thing, as a lawyer. Not quite as much on the design side. But you are still thinking about what use would be good here. Is this an appropriate location for new residential or a mixed use project? You are constantly looking at the world, the environment, and the setting, and figuring out where we should go and how the setting should change in the future.
Growing up I knew what my family did, but I never really made the connection and saw how it could cross over into the legal world. I guess I didn’t hear about their interactions with lawyers. It’s probably not what they wanted to talk about at the dinner table. Going into law school I didn’t have much of an impression or a concept of what public law was, and it was through this exposure at the Center for State and Local Government Law that I gained that.
Tell me about a day in the life of you.
I start most days here in our San Francisco office and typically have a couple of conference calls with our clients, regulatory officials, or consultants, throughout the day. We do a lot of work with various technical consultants learning about their area of expertise and applying that to our work. And then comes the work: researching legal issues, drafting briefs or agreements or just emailing clients. I attend a lot of evening hearings, which is something I have in common with other public lawyers. Particularly the ones that work with cities. I attend evening hearings where our clients’ projects are considered. It is really fun to sit amongst the committee members and hear their views and feedback on our clients’ projects. It gets me out of the office and immersed in a community that I may not know.
We work in San Francisco but also all over the Bay Area and all over the state. Every community is really different. That is the fun part of it. Walking into City Hall and getting a feel for what the facility looks like and hearing what the community members have to say. Sometimes they are gung ho in support of a project. Sometimes they are concerned about traffic or other issues. Seeing how the city council responds. The questions they ask. How they direct staff. It is fun to see the process play out. It is completely unpredictable.
What is the work/life balance in your line of work? And how does it compare with the work/life balance of colleagues of yours working in other areas of the law?
We, I think, have better work/life balance than some other areas of law, and part of that has to do with the long term relationships we establish and develop with clients. In other areas of law, you have one discrete issue: a case. You handle the case. After months or years the issue is resolved and they do not need you anymore. In our work we are developing long term relationships with clients. Once they finish one project they are on to the next, and they come back to you. It is not only with the clients but with cities and consultants too. It is actually valuable to our clients when we already have relationships with the planners, public works, or staff in other departments and we know what issues are important to the staff or city officials. It is really fulfilling to have those relationships with lots of different types of folks.
Also, the work flow is more consistent. We have some litigation deadlines and some closing deadlines, for say a purchase and sale agreement. But it is not as constant as it would be in other legal practices. What is more typical is just long haul compliance work. I mentioned CEQA earlier. A big part of what we are doing is helping ensure that the environmental review document being prepared for a project is adequate. And, it takes a long time. It takes one to two years to complete an environmental impact report. It is long steady process. And I think because of that it helps maintain a more regular workload and workflow.
But this kind of steady work comes with other challenges. One is being disciplined. Another is being a good project manager, which is something I have learned as my career has progressed. By that I mean that it is important to have the right legal answer, but that is only the first step. After that I need to think about what I do with this information and how I can achieve the intended outcome. How I can get results for a client. All of that involves psychology and emotional intelligence. Learning how to work with different people: the planners and the consultants, to move things along. It is different for every person that you work with. In some instances you identify that a particular person wants information handed to them and we need to be very detailed. Once they have that information they can move forward. Other people just want the short synopsis. That is another fun part of the job. Reading people. Figuring how to be effective in moving a project forward. Not just sitting back on your heels and going with what can be a slow process.
What surprises you about your work?
How multifaceted and multidisciplinary the work is. When I first started working, I thought my role was pretty narrow and that I was here to answer legal questions. I remember when I was first copied on a technical report. I threw my hands up and said, “that’s not my job”. But it is. That is a big part of what we do: reviewing technical documents and applying the law, as we know it, to these technical documents. And that was just one example of understanding that my role is much larger than I thought it was. Another discipline is economics. It's important to understand the real estate market and where we are in the current cycle. Knowing what product, what kind of housing, or other type of product, is growing at that time. Understanding the economics of a development project, whether it be development costs or city impact fees, in relation to revenue. All of that, of course, is very mathematical and requires an understanding of macro and micro economics.
Another area is politics. I mentioned community meetings before. It's important to get a sense of what the community cares about and to understand the feedback on a project, how a city runs and how the decision-makers make their decisions. And, you know, that is a real skill. Being able to tap into that, understand a community and understand how to work well in that community. Those are just some of the different disciplines that touch on the public law work we do. And then going back to the legal side: the number of environmental, land use and public laws that are out there are countless. Under CEQA there are hundreds of lawsuits filed every year. Probably thirty appellate decisions, just in CEQA, each year. There are eight CEQA cases being considered by the California Supreme Court just this year. So, keeping abreast of all of these legal developments and different areas of the practice initially surprised me. It is just so broad. It never gets routine. And it never gets boring. Which is a great thing. It is probably what I love the most. The practice is so varied and new and challenging.
In addition to the direct work I am doing for clients, it is really important for us to stay abreast of developments in the law and in the industry. So, another component of my day is networking in the community. That can be through real estate organizations. Planning organizations. Environmental consultant organizations. Two that I am really involved with are Urban Land Institute and San Francisco Planning and Urban Research. They are fantastic organizations. They put on a lot of great panels that are both substantive and also intended to help you meet more folks in the community. So, that is one way to do it. To get involved and hear what people are talking about on the street.
And then another component is just reading articles and following case law. We have a great paralegal who, at the end of the day, sends an email with all of the articles statewide that are related to land use, environmental and public law. I review that at the end of the day along with relevant cases. Throughout my career I have regularly written articles and participated in speaking engagements. This ensures that I am tracking the hot issues.
The fact that I practice in a group of about fifteen to eighteen attorneys in our West Coast Land Use and Environmental law group also helps me track the legal developments. It has been really valuable to practice in a community where people are sending around emails and saying “hey check this out” or “I’ve just had this experience…this is something we should talk about.” And we have weekly lunches where we discuss relevant practice issues. I am really thankful to be part of a team. And that can be somewhat unique, even when you are in a large law firm.
You were in the Local Government Clinic and you also did additional work with our Center. Did these experiences help pave the way for what you are doing now? If so, how?
It was fun to think back to my time in 2005. As part of the Local Government Clinic, I interned at the San Francisco City Attorney’s office, on the Land Use team. It was an incredibly useful experience. It was my first real exposure to land use law. And aside from the substantive issues that I was researching it was also just thrilling to be in City Hall. This gets back to the physicality of the practice. Being in an area and seeing how law is being implemented. Seeing the supervisors walking around the hallways. Meeting with the city attorneys. Hearing the issues that their clients -- public works staff, or any other city staff -- asked of the city attorneys. It was really exciting to be immersed in that environment and to see how the law is practiced there. The clinic also had a classroom portion, which was useful in building a foundation of the public law that I was researching as part of the internship.
Also, as part of the Center for State and Local Government Law, I worked on two fifty state surveys. One was on environmental justice policies, and one was on supplemental environmental projects. I loved the fact that the research questions were ones that agencies had specifically requested to be researched. So, I felt this sense that there are people who really want to know the answers. They want to know the results of this study. Whereas, maybe when you are doing a journal, or a law review, you cannot see the audience quite as clearly as I could see with my research projects where, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency had requested the surveys.
These surveys required a large investment of time. And, I recognized that the agency didn’t have the resources to conduct that kind of a research task. It felt rewarding and fulfilling to be able to invest the time myself, all the while learning while doing it, and to be able to provide something to the agency that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
More skills that I think I acquired through that process were some of these project management skills I mentioned earlier. One was time management, which I learned by preparing a plan for how I was going to get information from fifty state agencies. And communication skills too. I was pretty accustomed to getting on Westlaw or LexisNexis, but I was not as accustomed to picking up the phone and starting with a general hotline for the state agency and navigating my way through various staff members at that agency to ask the questions I needed to ask and find the information I needed. It was a great communication skills exercise.
As far as how this experience related to my current position, this goes back to relationships. Professor Jung, who I had gotten to know well when I was at Hastings, knew and still knows the senior partner of my practice group. It was Professor Jung's introduction that brought me to this firm. You hear about the importance of "networking" in law school but it doesn’t always sink in. There are certain ways to get jobs, through OCI and through submitting resumes online or various other routes. In my personal experience it has always been through relationships that I have received opportunities throughout the years. That is also in the category of what has surprised me. How important networking and relationship building is to your career. I now view this type of relationship building not only as something that is important for success but that makes for a richer working life.
Now, more than ever before there is financial pressure on lawyers entering the work force. What advice would you give to the next generation of law students interested in public law or government law?
Going back to what I have talked about, in terms of how multidisciplinary the work is, the land use practice is a type of practice that you just cannot learn by researching and going to the library. You really need practical experience. That is what I would encourage law students to think about. By getting practical experience you make yourself so much more useful and more efficient and those are very important characteristics for any public law attorney. Agencies don’t have a lot of funding and they need your answer to be efficient and to the point.
Since you were a student at UC Hastings there is now a Government Law student organization and a Government Law concentration. What feedback do you have for professors and the UC Hastings community in general in terms of what the next generation of public law lawyers need to know to be prepared?
I think students need to understand more of the business side of practicing law. That is something I have been working on more recently in my career. Understanding the business, not only on the private side but on the city side too. Understanding the business of municipal operation. How the city functions. How its budget works. When it comes down to it, economic decisions and economic fundamentals dictate the decisions that the city council members will make. And then understanding how a city communicates within itself and the staff communicates is really important to public law. The idea is focusing more on the business side of public law.
Cities are facing so many challenges. One important development has been the loss of redevelopment funding. In 2011 the Legislature eliminated redevelopment agencies. That was a big source of funding. Cities are now grappling with how to deal with that. That was in combination with declining property tax during the recession. It has been incredibly difficult for cities to figure out how to move forward. Any student who spends more time learning about the business and operations side of a public agency is going to be well poised to succeed in public law.
In wrapping up, it is great to be so locally connected and to have folks like you come out and continue the community ties. Being the in Bay Area we are not at a loss for law schools but it is great to be able to maintain these ties and relationships with the Hastings community. I have tried my best to return to Hastings. I have presented several guest lectures at Hastings, and an adjunct professorship. Not only do I hope to share my career experience and legal practice with Hastings students but the speaking engagements have been great experiences for my career progression. I'm grateful to have had these opportunities and thrilled to see the relationship continue beyond law school graduation.
Rachel Goodman is the Academic Program Coordinator with the Center for State and Local Government Law at UC Hastings College of the Law.