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A Top DOJ Environmental Attorney Comes Home

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“When you see how things go wrong in litigation, it makes you much better at figuring out how to prevent things from going wrong when you’re putting a deal together in the first place.”

The challenge demanded refined problem-solving skills, including the ability to manage multiple and, at times, conflicting priorities. Fortunately, Corinne Snow was up to the task.

Recently, as counsel and chief of staff in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Snow helped manage the Division of more than 400 attorneys and oversaw civil and criminal litigation related to more than 150 environmental and natural resources laws.

Now Snow is taking what she learned from these, as well as other DOJ experiences, and applying them for the benefit of her clients at V&E. A Harvard-trained attorney and Houston native, Snow clerked for a Fifth Circuit appellate judge and spent several years building her career in V&E’s environmental group before accepting an offer to work at the DOJ in 2017. After two and a half years at the agency, she returned to V&E as a counsel in January.

Snow’s formative years at V&E were spent working on matters in litigation, enforcement, regulatory advising and M&A. “I really love that the environmental group let me try all of them. And I think that cross-training makes people better lawyers,” she said. “When you see how things go wrong in litigation, it makes you much better at figuring out how to prevent things from going wrong when you’re putting a deal together in the first place. And when you work on deals, you’re much better at reading contracts and arguing about what those contracts say in litigation afterwards.”

Key to Snow’s development, she said, were the lessons she learned early in her career working with “a brilliant group of lawyers,” including partners like George Wilkinson. Wilkinson, Snow said, taught her the importance of establishing credibility and building your case on facts rather than bluster. Such guiding principles took on a new importance for Snow during her time at the DOJ. She saw firsthand how attorneys who approached the agency respectfully and handled their matters with care were more effective than lawyers propelled by hubris.

“There were people who tried to come in and pound the table, but you can’t scare DOJ,” she recalled. “DOJ attorneys know the facts, they know what they’re doing, and they’re not going to be terribly impressed by people acting like tough guys … I got to see how the DOJ attorneys reacted after those kinds of lawyers leave the room.  If you come in and you have cited cases truthfully and you haven’t overstated the facts, and you’re respectful in your tone, you are so much more likely to get a good outcome.”

Snow had her own share of good outcomes at the DOJ, where she was personally involved in some of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s cases.  She defended decisions to remove regulatory burdens on energy production and federal approvals for oil, gas and coal mining operations in court. She also brought an enforcement case against an oil and gas owner and operator.

“Working on that case, and with the Division’s enforcement lawyers in other cases, gave me a whole new appreciation for what goes into the decision making at DOJ.  There’s so much that happens behind the scenes before a case gets filed — a lot of internal discussions, discussions with the agencies, and negotiations with the companies or individuals involved.”

“In certain situations, DOJ’s enforcement cases are the right thing for the environment and the industry. For there to be a fair, level playing ground, everyone’s got to play by the same rules,” Snow said. “And DOJ’s approach is that if someone’s not playing by the rules and they’re doing things that are environmentally destructive, they need to be held accountable. There are good companies out there who are doing it right; and there are companies who make mistakes and want to fix them.”

“Environmental laws are complicated, it can be hard to get it right even when a company is trying,” she added. “But sometimes you have to go to court to resolve the problem. That’s one of the important things I learned from the great lawyers at DOJ — how to think about when to negotiate, and when it’s necessary to bring civil or criminal claims against a company or individual.”

In addition to overseeing the negotiations in myriad cases, Snow argued four cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals, one of the highlights of her tenure at the agency.

“There’s something just very special about getting to stand up in court and say, ‘I represent the United States.’”

Snow shared that some of her most gratifying work, however, was behind the scenes and involved other government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. “It was exciting to get to work on a lot of the big cases and regulations and help provide advice to different agencies about their litigation risk or litigation strategy. You can’t think about a case in isolation, you have to think about how it could impact all of the other cases that your client, the United States, brings and defends,” she said. “When there are a lot of decision makers, and you’re doing a lot of practical problem-solving to make sure everybody’s on the same page, that’s really rewarding in its own way.”

For example, when Snow first started at DOJ, the Environment and Natural Resources Division was defending both Obama-era environmental regulations and the repeals of some regulations, as directed by the Trump administration.

“We were in a very interesting position of defending the old rules in court and having clients [U.S. government agencies] who wanted to put out new rules that we knew would also be immediately challenged in court,” Snow explained. “We worked with them on what we said in court about the old rules, asked judges to give us some extra time for those agencies to decide if they wanted to do something different, and then eventually defended those agencies if they did take a different direction. At the end of the day, it’s about understanding the client’s goals.”

Those rewards notwithstanding, Snow ultimately found herself ready to return to private practice, eager to use her hard-earned insights on federal agencies to guide clients on everything from government investigations to getting projects built that require government approvals — especially when environmental groups might want to challenge those approvals in court. “I’ve seen how projects can be slowed down by environmental challenges. Sometimes for years. You realize how important it is to get out in front of the problems early, and to work with the agencies to create environmental assessments that can stand up in court before the suits get challenged.  It saves you a lot of time and money in the long run.”

As for coming back to V&E, specifically? That part was a no-brainer.

“It was pretty obvious early on that this was going to be the right place to come back to,” she said. “It just immediately felt like coming home.”

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.