Preparation, 'good luck' fuel Babst Calland's expansion
The decline in shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania prompted some law firms to dial back practice areas they formed to serve the industry during the past few months.
Downtown-based Babst Calland is instead expanding, opening a Washington office — its sixth location — with two lawyers handling issues involving energy, pipeline safety and hazardous materials.
Managing shareholder Chester R. “Chip” Babst III, one of the lawyers who founded the firm in 1986, said the move fits with its focus on environmental and regulatory law. Babst, 68, a fifth-generation Pittsburgher, spoke with the Tribune-Review about the expertise he and the firm built around an ever-changing regulatory environment.
Trib: Why did you focus on environmental law?
Babst: I'd like to tell you that it was good planning on my part, but that's not the case. When I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, I got a job with a larger firm in Pittsburgh, and at that time the Clean Air (Act) amendments had been passed in 1970, the Water Act passed in '72, and EPA had been created in 1970. There were all these new environmental regulations, they were affecting the clients that this firm represented and they needed some warm bodies who would be willing to read these statutes and all these new regulations. I was there. So I fell into it.
Trib: It's safe to say you've seen some changes in that field.
Babst: Talking about this 10 years ago, I would have said (the '70s) was the height of environmental change. But I think the period we're in probably rivals that period. ... It's an exciting time. Some environmental lawyers in the firm who are the same age I was when I started, I think they have the same exciting opportunities that I was fortunate to have back in the '70s.
Trib: Can you put your finger on the top aspect that has changed?
Babst: On the air side, climate change is a huge issue. The regulations that have been passed in the United States to either directly or indirectly deal with climate change have been significant. Regionally, we certainly dealt with environmental issues in the new shale gas development that has taken place over the past six or seven years. So there's a lot going on nationally and locally with energy development that was always here, but certainly the unconventional drilling for natural gas has created even more issues to deal with.
Trib: How have you guided the firm to change with that landscape?
Babst: We were small enough and nimble enough and so deeply involved in issues and Pennsylvania … we knew what was happening. We've always made an effort to make sure we're staying in front of the issues and trying to see what the needs of clients were, and predict what those would be. And there are other cases where one of our fundamental strategic planning principles has been dumb luck. To all of a sudden be sitting on top of the Marcellus shale, it just brought issues that otherwise may not have been presented to us. It's been good planning and good luck.
Trib: You weren't the only firm sitting on top of the Marcellus. How did you establish visibility?
Babst: In January 2010 … we looked at our firm and the various practice groups and identified the lawyers who had experience in the energy area. We put that group together and we began to meet every Tuesday morning … to really discuss updates in the various areas of practice in the energy field, to discuss staffing, assess our clients' needs, and in some cases to identify holes that we had in terms of where we saw needs of the client and didn't believe we had the top people in those areas. It's been a very productive way to proceed. We gained visibility quickly. The environmental practice was an initial hook because we had … a dominant practice in environmental areas.
Trib: Did the idea for the D.C. office and pipeline and hazmat safety unit come out of those Tuesday meetings?
Babst: Absolutely. Initially, we were heavily engaged with the (gas) exploration and production companies, but with the infrastructure here, we didn't have the capacity to deal with all the gas we had access to. So you have the midstream and pipeline segment. As we focused on that, we saw that regulations in pipeline safety would be changing. Clients have questions about what the requirements are. We had a lot of experience in developing a regulatory practice and being able to leverage that in the business community.
Trib: And you see that need continuing with the pipeline buildout?
Babst: Absolutely. And in addition to that, it's not just the pipelines, it's the transportation of hazardous materials, if you're transporting them by rail, that's covered. You're looking at the future use of liquefied natural gas. The pipeline safety lawyers we have have a great deal of experience of dealing with those.
David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.