When V&E Partner Margaret Peloso talks to law students about why she became a lawyer, she offers a simple explanation: sharks.
As a student at Duke University majoring in Marine Biology, Peloso used to conduct underwater research off the coast of North Carolina, where bumping into sharks was not uncommon.
“Having gone through that enough times, I thought, ‘I’m not sure how much I want to tempt fate. Maybe I need a new profession,’” she said.
Peloso opted for a career that would keep her mostly on solid ground, while still allowing her to dedicate herself to protecting the environment. She headed to Stanford Law School while simultaneously getting her Ph.D. in the Environment from Duke. Ultimately that dual track would lead her to V&E’s Environmental and Natural Resources group where she now heads the firm’s Climate Change practice.
Along the way, Peloso would become a leading thinker on climate change, recently publishing a book on the legal and policy issues associated with sea-level rise adaptation. Seen as a future leader of the environmental bar, she was recognized by Chambers as a Star Associate in Nationwide Climate Change from 2015 through 2018. Last year, Peloso was named one of the country’s 40 leading young lawyers by the American Bar Association.
While Peloso chose law over an academic career, her legal practice provides her with a platform for shaping environmental policy and practices.
“I’ve always cared about the environment, but I’ve always been incredibly pragmatic in my approach to things,” she said. “That’s why I decided to work for the energy industry instead of working against the energy industry. I like to think of myself as a problem-solver who helps clients with really complicated problems.”
Where Science Meets Law
Peloso’s scientific background and deep understanding of the risks that climate change poses to businesses offer distinct benefits to her clients.
A large part of her practice involves working with experts in the context of complex environmental litigation matters and rulemaking proceedings, to translate highly technical scientific subjects. For instance, Peloso was able to successfully advise a client on litigation and expert witness strategy related to one of the country’s largest Superfund sediment sites.
“I interface with scientific experts and help to develop their work to support our legal work,” she said.
Peloso also helps clients manage climate change risk, with an emphasis on the changing regulatory environment and climate change adaptation issues. One of her matters involved advising a publicly traded energy and services company on a number of complex issues related to the acquisition of an electric utility, including the risks posed by sea-level rise to coastal power plants.
As a scientist who has studied climate change, Peloso believes companies and their lawyers need to be more focused on the physical risk that climate change poses to their businesses.
“I spend a lot of time talking with clients, not just about trends in climate regulation or climate disclosure, but at a more fundamental level,” Peloso said. “What does generally accepted science tell us climate change is going to do to our planet? What kinds of physical risks is it going to pose? What are the risks for our client’s business in terms of physical exposure to things like hurricanes, sea level rise and increased drought?”
A Climate Change Wake-Up Call
Peloso’s perspective is rooted in her academic research. Her doctoral dissertation provided the foundation for her book, “Adapting to Rising Sea Levels: Legal Challenges and Opportunities,” published by Carolina Academic Press.
The 2017 U.S. Climate Science Special Report projects that sea levels will likely rise between 3 and 6 feet by the end of the century, causing dry land, beaches, marshes and other types of land to be permanently submerged. This has profound legal implications, Peloso explains.
The “public trust doctrine,” inherited by the U.S. from England, and dating back to Roman law, dictates that all submerged lands are the property of the state and held in trust for the people. As the sea level rises and gradually alters the line where land meets the sea, private land that becomes submerged will become part of the public trust.
“What we will see very slowly, over time, is one of the most significant transfers of private property to public title in history,” Peloso said. “It raises a lot of really fascinating questions about what you do in the interim.”
In writing the book, Peloso drew on her experience providing practical legal advice to clients.
“There are people in the legal academy who are looking at theoretical legal questions, such as who is going to own what property,” Peloso said. “I was able to ask some really practical questions about how the basic practice of environmental law is going to be impacted by climate change.”
Choosing to Join V&E
Back when Peloso was a law student considering what firm she might join, she asked law firm recruiters what they thought about her climate-related Ph.D. studies. Few believed it would make much of a difference in building her practice. The exception was V&E.
“I met with (V&E Environmental & Natural Resources partner) Kevin Gaynor,” Peloso said. “He said, ‘Here are all the ways we can leverage this and really turn it into a big opportunity for you.’”
The mother of a three-year-old son, Peloso credits her V&E colleagues with fostering an environment that allows her to achieve a work-life balance.
In spite of her multiple demands, Peloso finds time to devote to pro bono work. Over the years she has helped women and children who were the victims of domestic or sexual violence. She recently spent a week providing free legal advice to immigrant mothers detained at the Karnes County Residential Center, a detention facility near San Antonio.
“I walked away from the experience thinking every lawyer who can, should help,” Peloso said. “I think that there is tremendous power in allowing somebody to be heard, and to let them know that you really understand them and you really do care.”