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A Q&A Conversation with Joe Brendel

December 16, 2022

While Joe Brendel has accomplished plenty during his career in Environmental law, his efforts in mentorship and bringing up Clark Hill’s next generation of attorneys set him apart.

For his contributions, Brendel was recognized with Clark Hill’s 2022 Mentor of the Year award.

Brendel recently discussed his motivations for helping others throughout the firm, Clark Hill’s culture of mentorship, and his environmental law practice.

You’ve clearly left a mark on those in the firm who you’ve helped, what’s been your inspiration to be a mentor to others throughout the firm?

I was blessed to have a number of great mentors at Clark Hill, but one in particular stands out.  When I was a young associate at Thorp Reed & Armstrong, the predecessor to Clark Hill here in Pittsburgh, Pete Veeder was a wonderful mentor. As soon as I began working with Pete, he treated me as a valued member of the team despite my lack of experience. Instead of simply assigning me a narrowly-defined research task, Pete would spend the time to provide the context for the research and how it would help to address the client’s issue. Pete was a fountain of knowledge regarding both substantive environmental law as well as the soft skills of interacting with clients, opposing counsel, and even other attorneys within the firm. I just tried to soak in as much as I could. My goal is to be as good a mentor to others as Pete Veeder was to me.

Why is mentorship so important in a growing law firm like Clark Hill?

It’s really an essential part of the bargain of being in a law firm, regardless of the size.  Young attorneys expect that they will receive training and mentoring in exchange for the long hours spent working on matters for firm clients. Members and senior attorneys understand that mentoring is critical to developing skilled attorneys as well as the next generation of firm leaders.

How has your ability to mentor others changed over the past couple of years?

This might sound strange, but mentoring has actually become easier for me post-Covid. Most of the younger attorneys I have mentored recently have been located in other offices besides Pittsburgh. If anything good came out of Covid, it forced the adoption of Zoom and Microsoft Teams. While those videoconferencing technologies are not perfect, they are clearly better than listening to a voice on a phone call.

What do you find unique about Clark Hill and its culture around mentorship?

Clark Hill has a lot of wonderful mentors, and you don’t have to be senior to someone to be a mentor. I’ve had mentors who have been junior to me who have been in a specific practice area and have shared their knowledge with me. I think it’s a very welcoming environment for mentoring and it’s one of the things that makes Clark Hill very special.

To focus on your practice, how did you get hooked into environmental law and what has kept you in that area of law?

Environmental law wasn’t something that I studied in law school. Actually, when I graduated, I was still trying to decide whether to go into corporate law or litigation. When I joined Thorp Reed and Armstrong, they needed an associate in the environmental law practice so that’s where I started, and I have been doing it ever since. Because environmental law is a subject matter practice, the work can involve administrative hearings and courtroom litigation, supporting our corporate and real estate attorneys on due diligence and agreement negotiation, as well as regulatory compliance counseling. That variety has kept my environmental practice interesting over the years.

How have the practice and focus of environmental law changed during your career?

Throughout my career, the focus of environmental law has largely been defined by the major environmental statutes passed by Congress or the states. I started practicing shortly after CERCLA (the Superfund law) was enacted and the rules implementing RCRA had just been promulgated; so a lot of the focus then was on the regulation of hazardous wastes and cleanup of contaminated sites. After the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the focus shifted to air pollution regulation and permitting.  Starting in the mid-1990s and particularly after the Brownfields amendments to CERCLA in 2002, states began developing risk-based voluntary cleanup programs, which prompted a lot of redevelopment activity at brownfield properties. Those are a few of the examples of how new laws and regulations have to a large degree driven the environmental practice.

Typically, what kinds of questions do clients come to you with regarding environmental concerns?

On the regulatory side, the nature of the questions depends upon the size and sophistication of the client. I’ve had clients that are at the basic level of “Are we in compliance and, if not, what do we need to do to get into compliance?”  Or a new rule will come out and the question will be “Does this new regulation apply to our operations?”  I’ve also gotten questions that are much more specific, such as “If we modify our operations in this manner, can we take advantage of a particular legal exemption in the regulations?”

On the transactional side, the questions primarily are about quantifying and shifting environmental risk.  For example, “Have we performed enough environmental due diligence to identify and quantify the risks?” “Is it standard practice for the seller to retain this type of environmental liability?” “How can we ensure that the other side will honor its environmental commitments?” “Is there an environmental insurance product that will protect against this type of risk?”

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