Environmental Law 101: What the Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan (and the Legend of King Arthur) Tell Us About the Management of Environmental Crises.

The most important characteristics that an attorney can exhibit are dispassionate thinking, issue identification and problem solving. Good old fashion counseling. Many managers view the lawyer’s role as negotiating, litigating and arguing. In fact, these are minimum qualifications. It may come as a surprise, but a lawyer can also think, make sure facts are right, interpret nuance, parse the meaning of language, draft precisely and analyze without bias. A lawyer does not collect the data so he or she is not going to be a slave to it. Data is a tool to be used for the benefit of the client, not a deity to be worshipped. An environmental lawyer understands this and is not going to be awed by data.

CEOs/COOs know their business, but (in most cases) they don’t understand environmental issues. That’s appropriate because they have a company to run and delegate responsibility for environmental issues to other managers. But this creates a problem also because this means that they don’t understand what their consultants are telling them. They don’t understand concepts such as “risk” and “safety” in the environmental context. They need an interpreter who can evaluate available information for them; someone who can help them decide if more information is necessary and who can see the “big picture.”

Seeing the “big picture” is one of my favorite themes. Once, when negotiating a contract for building space for a law firm, I told our broker (who was providing me with reams of data on various alternative contractual proposals) that: “Detail is the enemy of resolution.” By that I meant that providing pages of printouts was going to just confuse my partners and make a decision more difficult. We summarized everything, comparing a few major elements for each proposal and providing a final cost for each. After we closed the deal, the broker sent me a memorial that said: “Detail is the enemy of resolution.”

I was reminded of this theme by the cable show I am watching which is recounting the attempted (and almost successful) assassination of President Reagan in 1981. [I was in a legislative negotiating session on that day and remember the Chairwoman leaving the room for a minute and coming back, crying, and said: “The President has been shot. We should adjourn.”] The Secret Service did not know that the President had been shot; and the doctors were confused because they could not explain the President’s condition and were stymied. When the doctors discovered the President had been shot, the Secret Service told them erroneously that a .38 caliber weapon had been used—forcing the doctors to look for a bullet fragment that didn’t exist. In the midst of the confusion and chaos, the treating surgeon saw the big picture and said: “The President is dying; our job is to make him not die.” They found the bullet hole and inserted a tube into the wound to find where it was located (something that had eluded them for hours). In effect, they used deductive reasoning and the simplest possible procedure to locate and remove the bullet. All the technology available wasn’t going to save the President; the medical team had to dothe work itself.

In one of my cases, I sat through a lengthy, complicated technical presentation that showed a lot of data, including what purportedly was a geologic feature that purportedly blocked any contamination from reaching groundwater. After the meeting, I had dinner with one of the other lawyers and his wife. He asked me what I thought of the presentation. [He is a fine real estate lawyer and had been impressed, as he should have been, by the presentation and felt reassured that no contamination had reached groundwater.] I told him that: “The geologic feature will disappear before this case is over.” I explained that there were only several data points over a large area; that the surface in the area had been badly disturbed by landfills that could act as conduits to groundwater; that the closeness of the landfills to the industrial area raised the possibility that waste had been discharged into the landfills by multiple parties; and that, in general, liquids find the weakest point in the environment to migrate. In short, physics trumps hope every time.

Experience shows that you have to have sufficient data to make good decisions; but you cannot be a slave to the data. As Merlin the magician excoriated young King Arthur: “Think, Arthur, think.” [He made Arthur imagine that he was a bird looking back at Earth; and he wanted him to see the big picture—i.e., that, from high enough up, there were no boundaries in England, no streams or fences; the country was one combined, united mass.] One of the greatest failures in environmental decision making is to get bogged down in detail and to not see the big picture. Detail is the enemy of resolution. Always has been; always will be. Define success, plan strategically and focus on outcome.

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