Susan Millington Campbell and the dirt aspect of environmental law
Published in 2013 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 13, 2013
Updated on September 25, 2013
Susan Millington Campbell’s smile never wavers. Her outfit is crisply ironed, her nails perfectly manicured; and when asked a question, she takes a moment to digest it, then responds in a soft voice with that unwavering smile. If not for the collection of legal awards and law-related plaques lining the walls of her office, you might think you were sitting down to tea with your favorite aunt rather than one of the most respected litigators in the Northeast.
“I’d probably guess she’s an educator, a college professor maybe. She’s a soft-spoken, very nice lady,” says James R. Carlson, the senior vice president of SNF Inc., a chemical company and one of Campbell’s clients. “A lot of [lawyers] have the testosterone flowing from the first time you meet them. She doesn’t have to be that way.”
“She can charm you but at the same time she’s doing a terrific job of representing her client,” says 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Denny Chin, who co-founded a firm with Campbell in 1986. “If you’re on the opposing side, you may not even know it.”
Campbell’s law-school classmate, Ellen Fried, is a past adjunct professor at the City University of New York School of Law. “Beneath her charisma and poise, she has an iron will,” Fried says, “a commitment to excellence. But she’s not competing with other people at all. She’s committed to her own excellence.”
At Hughes Hubbard & Reed, Campbell’s environmental defense clients range from the Boy Scouts of America and Walgreens to oil and gas industry and chemical manufacturers like SNF Inc. It’s the latter examples people tend to fixate on.
“The question I’m always asked at cocktail parties, when I tell someone I’m an environmental lawyer, is, ‘Do you wear a white hat or a black hat?’” Campbell says. “My answer is, ‘The hat has my client’s name on it.’”
Campbell was born amid the rolling farmlands and Amish buggies of Bucks County, Penn., the eldest child of two scientists. Her father was an industrial chemist, her mother a biochemist working on cancer research at Temple University School of Medicine. Her maternal grandfather, educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a civil engineer, outdoorsman, amateur musician and overall polymath who was a leader in the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Campbell has three sisters and a brother, and quickly established herself as an unofficial third parent. “She was very ambitious from the word go,” says Sally Jean Lee, the family’s third sister and three years Campbell’s junior. “She wanted to excel in everything. In high school, she did everything she could, every extracurricular activity. She crammed it in there.
“I should’ve known she’d become a lawyer,” Lee adds. “She was always debating me. She liked to debate about every issue under the sun. It drove me nuts because she always won.”
The move toward the legal profession seemed obvious to Campbell as well.
“From the time I was in 10th grade, when I read Louis Nizer’s books behind closed doors, I knew that I wanted to be a litigator,” she says. “It was the opportunity to be involved in the issues of the day and to speak on behalf of someone who’s hiring you to do that.”
In 1972 she was majoring in political science at Mount Holyoke College when Columbia Law School offered her the chance to go there straight from her third year of college.
“I remember her energy and enthusiasm and friendliness and warmth,” says Fried. “I remember taking classes with her and being really impressed with her focus and dedication. And I remember her being an avid jogger, jogging around Riverside Park, through neighborhoods, through streets. She enjoyed seeing things, observing different neighborhoods while she was running.”
After law school, Campbell stayed in New York City and began a clerkship at the 2nd Circuit, simultaneously juggling the caseloads of two judges, Judge Harold R. Medina and Judge Sterry R. Waterman. The following year, she joined Townley & Updike as its second female lawyer ever. She was an idealistic 23-year-old, sure she was about to change the world.
“It was 1976, and I had a burning desire to do First Amendment litigation,” Campbell recalls. “I loved the idea that [Townley & Updike] were in the Daily News building. I would be prepping reporters, protecting the First Amendment, like Judge Medina was always talking about—shining the light.”
Two years later, the light led her downtown. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office was clearly the fast-track thing to do,” she says. “I got in, and chose the civil division, because I had no interest in cops and robbers.”
The environmental unit particularly appealed to the lifelong lover of the outdoors. It was the dawn of the green era in American politics. Environmentalism had gone from a niche movement to a mainstream concern, and in 1980 Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, creating the mechanism by which governmental officials could clean up locations massively polluted with hazardous materials—the so-called Superfund sites. Campbell immediately saw the opportunity and brought the first Superfund case in New York, United States v. Berncolors-Poughkeepsie, after an explosion and fire caused hazardous substances from a dye manufacturing facility to be released into the environment.
“One of the things I really like about environmental law is it’s so concrete,” Campbell says. “You’re dealing with operations and businesses you can put your hand on. I like to understand the science of it and what’s going on with the factories and the pipes. I like the dirt aspect of it.”
In 1983, Campbell was promoted to chief of the Environmental Protection Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. She worked closely with Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Hudson Riverkeeper to end Exxon-Mobil’s practice of discharging ballast upriver in the Hudson. She also worked on a lawsuit to compel the city of New York to build the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Until then, untreated sewage on the city’s West Side flowed directly into the river.
“Let’s put it this way: She’s smart, she’s determined, she’s enthusiastic, she’s composed,” says Dennison Young, a former assistant U.S. attorney and confidante to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now with Giuliani Partners. He was the senior counsel on the first case Campbell tried, revolving around the question of whether prisoners could volunteer for medical experiments. “She’s what you want a superb litigator to be.”
In 1986, Campbell and two other assistant U.S. attorneys, Denny Chin and Michael Patrick, struck out on their own. The trio formed a boutique firm specializing in civil litigation.
What did they work on? “Anything that walked through the door,” Campbell recalls. “It was a blitzkrieg education in business development, how to market yourself, how to run a firm, business collaboration—all the aspects of a business.”
“I remember being on the rooftop of Michael’s building on the Upper West Side having cocktails as we were talking about this, when I put down ‘Campbell, Patrick, Chin, ampersand,’” Chin says. “We were trying the combinations, but Michael and I agreed: ‘Let’s put Susan first.’ We thought it would be cool to have a woman first. And she was the most senior.”
The fact that Campbell was an experienced female litigator proved important to Ariana J. Tadler, a Fordham law student who worked as a summer associate in the third year of the firm, and is now a partner at Milberg. “I worked on an immigration matter, dealing with somebody not from the firm who clearly, because of his upbringing and ethnic background, had a certain bias against respecting women,” Tadler says. “But I needed to educate this man about his rights. I was not prepared for what that was like. So I consulted with Susan. And Susan said, ‘You know what you have to do. Go do it,’ literally pushing me out the door.”
If the firm was a blitzkrieg education, it was also a costly one. The first year, each partner took home $35,000 in income. The second, $50,000. The final year, they made $80,000 each—a relative pittance compared to what colleagues were making.
“The hard part wasn’t the law part, it was collecting money,” Chin says.
The partners dissolved the firm, and Campbell joined Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon. Her new firm’s resources meant she could now handle cases of any size—such as representing Stone & Webster, once one of the largest engineering firms in the world. The Massachusetts-based company was in the midst of a sprawling, complex series of cases involving hazardous waste cleanup that meant combing through millions of pages of records from utility companies across the country all the way back to the 1890s—sometimes on gargantuan daily logbooks over a century old. Campbell headed the team going through all the records, page by page, and tracking down former utility-company employees who were well into their 90s.
“She had a good sense of humor about it. You needed a good sense of humor,” says John P. McGann, former assistant corporate secretary and assistant general counsel at Stone & Webster. “She can look reassuring and calming, and yet be hard as nails.”
The Stone & Webster legal team didn’t lose any of the cases. Two of the major ones were settled for what they considered reasonable amounts.
“When she’s in the courtroom, she’s a rock star,” Tadler says. “I remember when I first started out in law school, there was a way you were expected to be as a woman in a courtroom, and it began with a ‘B.’ But whenever someone was nasty to Susan, she always took a deep breath and came back with a zinger that came out like a song. It would be like, “Mr. So-and-So, I think what you just said was this, but you might want to reconsider in light of da-da-da. My gosh, she’d reel them right in.”
In 1994, U.S. District Court Judge John R. Bartels appointed Campbell as adviser to the cleanup of the most notorious, and largest, garbage dump in modern American history: the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The hazardous eyesore was impossible to miss. It stood 225 feet high, 75 feet taller than the nearby Statue of Liberty.
“I became an expert on landfills: the sheer quantity of the garbage, the practical reality of where this stuff was going to go,” she says.
“It took my partner and me months and months to get a handle on what was going on, but she picked it up very quickly,” says Matthew Pavis, attorney for Staten Island Citizens for Clean Air. He adds that the case involved 20 years worth of documents, several environmental statutes and a number of federal regulations. “She was very radiant, had a cheery, optimistic demeanor. But she knew the political realities, and she hammered down on the attorneys she was working with because she knew they’d put the pressure on the higher-ups.”
The landfill was shut down, and now the 2,200 acres are being turned into a park three times the size of Central Park.
In 1995, Mudge Rose folded, and Campbell took her clients to Hughes Hubbard & Reed, where she chairs the environmental group.
“She is very single-minded,” says Ned Bassen, her husband and a fellow partner at Hughes Hubbard. “She works nonstop from the second she gets in to the second she leaves, with the occasional break. No chatting in the hall, no reading the newspapers, and she always works through lunch at her desk.”
Every other work day, she walks the four miles to her Lower Manhattan office from her home in Brooklyn, rain or shine. “She is always on the go,” Bassen says. “Regardless of the weather, even if there’s a blizzard, that’s what she does.”
For a woman constantly on the go, Campbell is exactly where she wants to be.
“When I was clerking, I thought [being a judge] had to be the noblest of professions,” she says. “But the fact is, I don’t like to be in the middle. When I’m moot courting and I have to be a judge, I’m pretty bad. The compromise aspect doesn’t appeal to me, and I want to say to the kids, ‘Why didn’t you argue this?’ Living by advocating for someone? That’s what appeals to me.”