Product of Her Environment
Environmental lawyer E. Lynn Grayson saves companies green
Published in 2016 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 4, 2016
Updated on February 6, 2016
If it takes a pecan grove to settle a case, E. Lynn Grayson is fine with that.
Shortly after Grayson arrived at Jenner & Block as a partner in 1994, the Justice Department sued client Tenneco Oil Co. (now El Paso Gas) on behalf of the Native American Sac and Fox Nation as a result of wildcatting—drilling exploratory oil wells—in the 1950s. The company was accused of destroying an aquifer, creating wastelands and wiping out a huge pecan grove. “The case was interesting,” she says, “because the tribe put on ceremonial prayers before each meeting and hoped that a good outcome in the case—that is, clean water and restored land—would entice members to return to their ancestral lands,” she says.
Grayson’s team spent a lot of time facilitating negotiation between Tenneco and leaders of the Sac and Fox Nation. In the end, litigation was avoided with a settlement that satisfied all parties: $1.16 million in cash payouts, new wells, irrigation systems, and land restoration, including a pecan grove. The tribe gained what it needed to pursue its goal and the company was happy to avoid years of costly litigation.
Such “externalities”—the unrecognized costs or benefits incurred by corporations in the course of doing business—are Grayson’s sweet spot. Corporations are always looking for ways to lower these costs or pass them on to others, and Grayson, 54, stands in the middle of the fray, looking for solutions to benefit everyone before high stakes or emotional investment make settlement impossible.
“I am very hands on,” she says. “I have been down a coal mine, on a nuclear sub, walking contaminated areas. I have touched and felt environmental law.” And it has made a difference in her practice.
“I find her to be highly sophisticated, experienced, reasonable and, above all, commercial,” says a partner at a global law firm who has been on the opposite side of the table from Grayson and appreciates her willingness to see the business realities that corporate clients face. “Clients don’t like lawyers who interfere with reasonable business solutions and she’s not like that at all. She’s always prepared, creative and focuses on finding common ground quickly and efficiently.”
Half of Grayson’s business concerns the environmental impact of mergers and acquisitions. These deals, too, require environmental legal counsel who can cut to the essentials to get deals done. Case in point: Grayson’s efforts on behalf of Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, to assist with a settlement of a potential environmental liability so a land development deal in New Jersey could proceed. (Electric Boat is also the company whose newly developed nuclear sub was launched by First Lady Michelle Obama in October.)
Electric Boat had been working for several years on the environmental issues, including contamination by industrial solvents, at the facility in question, the site of a Jersey industrial plant. In 2011, Grayson shared a new idea with Donna Elks, manager of environmental resources at Electric Boat: “Why don’t we convene a team of environmental experts along with your executives to think through these problems?” Elks was open to the idea and especially liked that Grayson persuaded the experts to help at no charge. “There didn’t seem to be an end in sight, but Lynn suggested a deal that was pleasing to both sides and eliminated the liability for our company in an environmentally sound manner,” says Elks. The mitigation of the contamination is underway.
“Lynn gets to the heart of the matter and works with both sides.”
Elks says Grayson isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. “This is a woman who wears construction boots and hard hats,” she says, to personally inspect every area of the company with Electric Boat’s environmental review team.
The thing Elks really appreciates, though, is something she says she rarely sees from consultants of any kind. While some are content to simply point out problems, Grayson goes further: “Lynn is very vocal that when we identify compliance issues, we should be able to suggest solutions.”
Grayson got into environmental law at an auspicious time. The first Earth Day was a dozen years past, awareness of environmental sins had exploded, and governments all over the country were passing rafts of legislation designed to clean up the air, water and soil after generations of neglect. In 1986, right out of law school, she was hired by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office under Neil Hartigan as assistant attorney general. They desperately needed more environmental attorneys to handle the rash of newly defined regulatory violations, so her career took an almost immediate turn.
“I fell into environmental law,” Grayson says. “I was there at the right time and the right place.”
So big was the environmental push that office space was at a premium. Grayson had to be placed in the workspace of another young attorney, Joe Madonia. Neither was happy with the arrangement. Madonia, now a partner at Barnes & Thornburg practicing environmental litigation, pushed Grayson’s desk into a corner. “She got pretty aggressive about fighting for 50 percent of the office space. … Maybe that experience made her a better attorney because she learned that aggressive tactics did work,” says Madonia with a laugh. Eventually they split the office 50/50 and the ice melted: The two married in 1991, after both had moved on from the AG’s office.
Grayson had gone to Franklin College (near her hometown of Whiteland, Indiana) intending to be a first grade teacher. As a student, though, she kept hearing how difficult it was to get a job in teaching. Then one day, a professor took Grayson aside after class and changed her life. “You’re really smart,” he told her. “Why don’t you join my pre-law program?”
She became the first member of her family to graduate from college. Afterwards, she applied for a scholarship to do graduate work, only to find out that the award, which she won, applied specifically to medicine or law. Giving in to this nudge from the universe, Grayson enrolled at Indiana University School of Law – Bloomington, but during her first year, she considered dropping out. “The Socratic method of learning was very jarring,” she remembers. “And my personality was so opposite most of my aggressive and outgoing classmates.” Her father said he’d help her transfer to another school, but the universe spoke once again: Her professional credits wouldn’t transfer with her.
“So I stayed and things greatly improved,” she says, laughing.
After two years with the AG’s office, she became general counsel for the Illinois Emergency Services and Disaster Agency. In her office is a framed quote: “No one gets in to see the wizard, not no one, not no how.” It was given to her by a mentor after she skillfully handled a “situation” at the agency. The person in the governor’s office traditionally responsible for managing emergency situations was out of town, so in his absence Grayson successfully handled the emergency response to a situation at a nuclear power plant. No one in the know talked much about it at the time, and Grayson, unsurprisingly, is not talking much about it now. Confidentiality, of course, is one of the most valued services she provides to her clients.
Grayson was soon lured into private practice at Coffield Ungaretti & Harris, where environmental law was heating up. “The government started prosecuting environmental matters, and once the government geared up, that required firms to gear up,” she says. “Many firms pooh-poohed its longevity, seeing it as a fad. That’s why you see a lot of women in the field who quickly rose to be senior people in their firms in the 1990s, just like [they have in] cybersecurity today.”
Becky Raftery, now managing counsel at BP America, played a large part in bringing Grayson to Jenner & Block.
“I was impressed that she had the regulatory experience from the government side,” Raftery recalls. “That background gives you a different perspective and lets you counsel your clients with your direct insight into what the government’s goals are.” Grayson is now also co-chair of the firm’s environmental and workplace health & safety practice group.
During her first week at Jenner, Grayson was sent to California to work on an issue for General Dynamics, the Fortune 50 heavy industrial company that has provided much of Grayson’s business for more than 20 years. “It has been an incredible opportunity for me,” she says. “Their operations are so complex that I have encountered everything in environmental law through them.” This may include environmental compliance counseling, management of technical support, environmental litigation, auditing, environmental due diligence in conjunction with M&A matters and environmental insurance considerations.
Grayson was also heavily involved in the 363 Sale in 2009 that allowed General Motors to become “the New GM.” Because it was a bankruptcy proceeding involving hundreds of properties, deadlines were intense, critical and constant. “We literally worked 24/7—texts at 2 in the morning, constant phone calls,” Grayson says. “I remember a specific time when I went with my family to enjoy the long Fourth of July weekend in Wisconsin. In the end, I got to spend an hour with them watching fireworks.”
About a quarter of Grayson’s practice now involves Superfund cleanups. These typically start quietly with a 104E notice from the EPA, with questions and requests for documents related to a site it has deemed worthy of investigation for past polluting practices. It is then up to Grayson to evaluate what a client’s connection is to a hazardous waste site. If there is a connection and liability, she works with attorneys for other “potentially responsible parties”—whether that’s the current owners, past owners or bankrupt owners—to develop a plan and manage whatever the government wants from the parties. Resolving these matters completely, in terms of responsibility, can take years.
“I’m glad that our clients feel responsible for doing their part to clean up the environment,” she says. “Nobody wants to end up like China, where they have to wear face masks just to breathe.”
Grayson’s right calf sports a tattoo of an angel with the words “Someone to watch over me.” But it’s Grayson herself who tends to be the person watching over others. Her pro bono work at the firm began early and has included co-chairing the firm’s diversity committee, which once brought in a new state senator named Barack Obama—she remembers him as “personable, witty and, overall, very charismatic”—to speak about diversity in hiring. Grayson also participates in what was then called the Just the Beginning Foundation, which encourages teens to go to college and hopefully law school. Beyond her in-firm contributions, she is pro bono counsel for a variety of organizations, including the Alliance for the Great Lakes; Geneva Lake Museum, an affiliate of the Wisconsin Historical Society (near her second home in Lake Geneva); and WINGS (Women in Need Growing Stronger) in Palatine, which supports homeless women and children.
But the causes dearest to her heart have one thing in common: They are efforts to advance women in the law.
Grayson co-chaired the Chicago Bar Association’s Alliance for Women with Jane DiRenzo Pigott for a year, after both served as co-vice chairs for a year. During that time, they created Call to Action, a survey of large and medium law firms to measure trends in the number of women partners, associates and other lawyers. “We started this in 2004 and kept it going. We’ve seen some progress, although not enough,” says Pigott. “We looked at best practices at law firms that were doing well with regard to the retention, development and promotion of women and found some of the secrets: real mentors and sponsors and access to high quality skill-building assignments for important clients, internally and externally.”
As a member of the Alliance for Women Advisory Council, Grayson, the winner of the first Alta May Hulett Award for the advancement of women, is trying to make the Call to Action a reusable tool that can be exported to other cities and states. Also through the AFW, she recently helped create the blog Balancing Act: A Guide for Working Parents, directing a gang of volunteer bloggers who share their insights on combining parenting and the law.
There isn’t much that fazes Grayson. Tromping around in the mud at a contaminated site? Bring it on. Four-hour conference calls at her standing desk? Good exercise. Two weeks of near-24/7 negotiations over the holidays? Pass the turkey. Her unflappability could stem from her rural Indiana roots, her strong Catholic faith, or her years of experience as a professional. Or maybe, she says, it’s thanks to her training to be a first grade teacher. “If you can maintain calm in a classroom, you can keep people happy anywhere,” she says.
Sitting in her office with its panoramic view of Lake Michigan and River North, Grayson isn’t showy with her success. No couture suits and stiletto heels for her. She’s too concerned with getting a job done—and comfortable just works better, especially when the environment is involved.
Says Pigott: “She models professionalism, polish and a style that’s all her own. When junior women look at her, they see someone who has made it to the top and done so with a style that is authentic to her.”