Lawyer in the Mist

Richard Horder represents developers, protects gorillas and searches for common ground

Published in 2010 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2010

Describing the big and small of his practice, Richard (Rick) Horder, head of the environmental, land use and natural resources team at Kilpatrick Stockton’s Atlanta office, says, “I practice gorilla law and mouse law.”

Here’s the mouse law. Horder has represented a number of developers along the Gulf Coast, who, under the Endangered Species Act, created habitat conservation plans for endangered beach mice in order to build golf courses and condos.

It’s the kind of thing anti-environmentalists would ridicule, but Horder takes it seriously. “I consider myself an environmentalist,” he says. “I’m sure there are people who would not say that—because I represent industry—but I view my job as telling people how to comply with the law. We don’t represent midnight dumpers. I wouldn’t do it and the firm wouldn’t do it. But the laws are quite complicated and some folks don’t know how to comply, or how best to comply, so I view our job as providing advice to business and developers [that] will allow a project to go forward in a form that works economically and at the same time protects the species involved.”

As for gorilla law? Horder is chair of the board of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, housed at Zoo Atlanta, which was founded in 1978 to study and protect gorillas that live in the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo. Fossey’s life, of course, became the subject of Gorillas in the Mist, the award-winning 1988 film starring Sigourney Weaver.

Horder got involved when a friend, Clare Richardson, the executive director of the organization, asked him to serve on the board. He’s since visited the gorillas’ habitat in Rwanda several times.

“There are about 700 mountain gorillas left in the world,” he says. “When [Fossey] did her work, she went on her own and lived in the forest. She must have been wet all the time, because I’ve been there and it’s wet. You are at 6,000 to 7,000 feet, and if you track [the gorillas] sometimes you are climbing to 9,000 or 10,000 feet. It’s jungle. Very hard going.”

Horder says the organization funds trackers from Rwanda, who keep tabs on the gorillas and remove snares set by poachers intended to catch other animals. The trackers are often armed to protect both themselves and the gorillas from the poachers. The organization also provides money to support projects aimed at providing basic health care, clean water and help for schools and orphanages in Rwanda and the Congo.

Horder talks about the fund’s work in the same practical way he talks about his work to help developers. “If you’re going to preserve the gorillas,” he says, “you need to make it useful [for the local population]. Ecotourism is one of the boons to Rwanda now—it’s millions of dollars.”

His Rwanda trip was, he says, “pretty close to a life-changing experience. [The gorillas] look you in the eye, and there’s some connection there.”

But he was taken aback by the lack of supplies and resources at a local clinic. “They had no electricity, no mattresses, no running water,” he says. “If someone came in at night, they had to light candles.”

The fund has since helped upgrade the clinic. “[Now] we have mattresses on the beds, running water and solar power, so there is a light in every room, and power for a small refrigerator [to store] vaccines.” The clinic also has help from Horder’s wife, Mary, a retired physician, who makes two trips a year to Rwanda to help train staffers in health care. “She’s not doing high-tech stuff,” Horder says. “They cook over open fires so there are a lot of burns. She’s taught them how to debride the burns and to treat them. The last time she was there, a guy had severely injured himself with a machete. She took care of him.”

 

That’s the big and the small of it. But there’s another side to Horder’s practice and both sides are evident in his office. Along with a poster for a benefit showing of Gorillas in the Mist on the wall, and several striking Inuit animal sculptures spread throughout the cluttered office, there’s a bulletin board covered with photos of approximately 50 children. Thanks to Horder, they’ve all been adopted. “My passions,” says Horder, “are children and animals.”

Horder’s interest in adoption law began when he and his wife adopted their oldest daughter in 1977. “I couldn’t find anyone who knew anything about it,” Horder says. So he learned. He’s since helped revise Georgia’s adoption statute and now serves on the board of Family Connection Partnership. “This is not a poor state, but children have never been a priority, in my view. They need to be made a priority,” he says.

Horder also had a serendipitous meeting with Steve Gottlieb, executive director of Atlanta Legal Aid Society, which has had a lasting impact on adoptions in the state.

In 1997, as Horder was about to become board president of Legal Aid, Gottlieb visited him in his office. Legal Aid’s attorneys had noticed more and more senior clients taking care of grandchildren, and this was on Gottlieb’s mind when he found Horder on the phone talking about an adoption case. Gottlieb calls it a case of  “One plus one equals seven,” and it prompted Gottlieb to ask Horder if he would be interested in creating a program at Kilpatrick Stockton to help grandparents who care for their grandchildren attain legal standing as guardians.

Horder knew pro bono work on adoptions was a natural. “One of the things about getting people to do pro bono is that people don’t like getting out of their comfort zones,” he says. “I’m a litigator, so I’m used to going to court. But a lot of corporate lawyers don’t go to court.” At the same time, he says, most adoptions are usually done in chambers. They’re relatively quick and non-adversarial. “It’s very feel-good,” Horder adds.

So Horder persuaded Kilpatrick Stockton to create the Grandparent/Relative Caregiver Adoption Project, which has contributed more than 6,000 hours to representation in adoption cases. “Atlanta Legal Aid does the intake, then refers that matter to us or someone else,” says Horder. Horder also convinced his firm to hire a pro bono partner, Debbie Segal, who has been instrumental in building the Grandparent Project.

Gottlieb calls Horder a misplaced Legal Aid lawyer. “He’s someone I never have any hesitation calling,” says Gottlieb. “He’s somebody I don’t let go.”

 

That’s quite a change from 35 years ago. “I probably got sued by the lawyers for Atlanta Legal Aid from 1974 through 1977 more than anybody else in the world,” Horder says with a laugh. In fact, one of his longtime friends, Myron Kramer of Kramer & Alfano, who was then with Atlanta Legal Aid, used to sue him regularly.

Back then Horder was an assistant U.S. attorney, representing, among other agencies, Housing and Urban Development. “It was a not-dissimilar time to today,” says Kramer, “with a lot of foreclosures” and actions concerning public housing. Yet in their dealings Horder was always prepared and professional, Kramer says: “Everything you want a lawyer to be.”

It was while handling HUD lawsuits that Horder found his calling.

He studied at the London School of Economics as a prelude to practicing international law. But when he returned to the States in 1974 and made the rounds of Atlanta law firms, he says, “It was disheartening because Atlanta was the ‘next great international city’ and the first question I would get is, ‘What’s the London School of Economics?’ Then they’d say, ‘You want to practice international law? There isn’t any international law here.’”

Which is why he went to work for the Department of Justice. There, he became intrigued by one of the other agencies he represented: the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Environmental law is highly regulatory—it’s like the tax code,” he says. “If you had told me I was going to spend my life reading the code of federal regulations, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. But as I got into it I found it fascinating.”

As an assistant U.S. attorney, Horder had access to expert witnesses who helped him master the details. “When I needed an engineer to testify or help me out, [I could get someone] and they were very patient,” he says. “I don’t have a technical background—I studied English, history and political science. They would draw pictures and teach me how a venturi scrubber worked.”

After a few years Horder left the DOJ and went into private practice. Then he got a call from the general counsel at Georgia Pacific, headquartered, at the time, in Oregon. Horder remembers thinking: “I don’t want to do railroad law.” After learning it was a paper company looking for a regional counsel to do mostly environmental work, he became interested and ultimately accepted.

“Again, I was fortunate to have top-flight and very patient engineers who taught me about the technical aspects,” he says. “It was primarily water [issues] but paper mills have significant amounts of emissions, so I learned about scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators. And most paper companies have large holdings of timberlands, so you get involved in wetlands issues and endangered species issues.

“That’s still what I do now, 30 years later.”

Horder is frank about representing businesses in environmental cases. “Some law students I interview, they think they’re going to come here and do work for the Sierra Club,” he says. “I’ve done work for the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, but that’s not who we represent. We tend to represent businesses that have an environmental issue. Sometimes government isn’t even involved.” Horder recalls a case several years ago where his client, a large retailer, sued another company that had contaminated the retailer’s property. “We went to trial and got a $20 million verdict,” Horder says.

Horder acknowledges there are extremists on both sides of the environmental debate but feels most businesses want to do right. “You do have people on the business side who are just, ‘No, no, no,’” he says. “And you have people on the environmental side who are perhaps a little too adamant. And it’s difficult to bridge that gap. [For example,] there are people who say, ‘Atlanta has water problems and we can’t have any more growth.’ My own personal view is, that’s crazy. I don’t think you can stop people from moving to Atlanta, or Florida, or California. What you have to do is develop systems that allow that to happen in a way that doesn’t deplete Lake Lanier.

“I guess I’m an optimist,” he adds, “because I do believe people of good will can come to the table and come up with a system that works. It takes time [and there are] lots of stakeholders. But I think you can do that.”

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