September 22, 2008

From Geek to Guru

By Sandy Wells

In the seventh grade at Horace Mann Junior High School, he created a solar-powered thermopile for the science fair. "I built a solar-powered furnace and generated electricity with it. It was my first foray into alternative energy."

Alternative energy? In the seventh grade?

He loved astronomy. He belonged to the astronomy club at Sunrise. As a college student, he lectured at the Sunrise planetarium on Sundays.

He wore glasses and had thick dark hair. He studied hard. "I wanted to be a scientist, probably a physicist."

Yes, he was a nerd.

"I don't know what the word was around then," he said, "but it would have applied to me. So would science geek."

So would dork or egghead or any other name kids call those brainy kids who always wind up enormously successful.

People still call him names. They call him the best. More often than not, they follow up with "in the world."

In the field of environmental law, Michael Gerrard is an internationally known hot shot, Manhattan's reigning legal guru on everything green.

A resume that fills nearly 16 pages should tell you something. So should some of his cases.

After the 9/11 attacks destroyed the World Trade Center, the real estate developer responsible for rebuilding the towers hired Michael Gerrard as his environmental guide.

When Donald Trump wanted to build a luxury golf course in a suburb where pesticides from the course could contaminate a nearby drinking water reservoir, townspeople called on Michael Gerrard to stop it.

"It took seven years, but we defeated the golf course. I was able to say, 'Donald, your golf course is fired.'"

When neighbors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art started battling the museum over plans to build a major exhibition space for Greek and Roman art, the museum called on Michael Gerrard for help.

"The neighbors didn't like the traffic and construction noise. The museum hired me to defend them. The gallery was built."

Managing partner and head of the New York office of Arnold & Porter, a Washington, D.C., firm that employs 650 lawyers, Gerrard lectures around the globe. He teaches. He writes and edits books, including the prestigious 12-volume "Environmental Law Practice Guide." Critics called his 2007 book on global climate change "an impressive work of legal scholarship."

Lawyer rating services consistently place him at the top of the heap. One guide ranked him as the leading environmental lawyer in the world.

Let's hear it for our nerd.

"I owe it to my West Virginia origins," he quipped.

Sure, he's kidding. But not really. During an interview last week from his New York office, Gerrard said those nerdy, geeky years in Charleston played a big role in his success.

"We had a house on the banks of the Kanawha River. I saw and smelled the pollution. It was immensely worse then. The one thing that strikes me when I come back is how much cleaner the river is, and the air. It's quite startling after a long absence."

In fact, his hometown earned a mention during a 2006 lecture in Beijing. "I gave a lecture about water pollution control and used the Kanawha River as an example of how water pollution laws can really work."

A graduate of Columbia University, Gerrard used "The Politics of Air Pollution in West Virginia" as his thesis subject. "I interviewed Carl Beard, head of the Air Pollution Control Commission, and did a big study. That's what really got me interested," he said. "It was the time of the first Earth Day, 1970."

A New Yorker by birth, Gerrard moved to Charleston from Wilmington, Ohio, in 1959. He was 8. The family lived on Kanawha Avenue, beside what was then Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston.

His father, Nathan Gerrard, was chairman of the sociology department at Morris Harvey. He died in 1983. His mother, Louise, was executive director of the West Virginia Commission on Aging. She died in 1979. He has one brother, Steve, a philosophy professor at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Gerrard's scientific aspirations faded as a student at George Washington High School. "I came up against calculus and concluded that it wasn't my thing," he said.

Shelving the physicist dream, he picked up on his love for writing and set his sights on journalism. Preparation included three summer internships at The Gazette during the legendary era of Ned Chilton, Don Marsh, L.T. Anderson and Jim Hill.

In 1972, he got his B.A. in political science from Columbia and worked that summer in the Charleston bureau of The Associated Press.

The idea of environmental law took root during his work on the George McGovern presidential campaign. "Environmental law was an infant field at the time," he said, "but I was thinking about it."

Two years later, after working in the New York mayor's office as a policy analyst for the Council on the Environment, he made it official. "I had a strong interest in environmental issues from my experience in Charleston. I saw that environmental issues can be both serious and solvable. And I saw that the people doing the most effective work in the environmental area seemed to be the lawyers."

Fresh out of law school, he signed on with Berle, Kass & Kane, a firm he worked with as a member of an environmental group battling a proposed interstate highway in New York.

"The highway would fill in 10 percent of the cross-section of the Hudson River for about four miles. It would be built in a tunnel through that landfill at a cost of almost $2 billion, or $10,000 per linear inch.

"Under federal law, that money could have been used instead to improve the subway and bus system, which was falling apart. Berle, Kass & Kane represented the environmental groups fighting the highway and I got to know the lawyers. They hired me when I graduated."

The case raged for years. Environmentalists finally won their case in 1985 and named Gerrard as a partner. He stayed until the firm dissolved in 1994.

He joined Arnold & Porter that year and was named managing partner of the Manhattan office in March.

He uses the journalism training virtually every day. Along with dozens of articles and reports written for various publications and the seven books he's written or edited, he founded and edits a monthly newsletter, "Environmental Law in New York," and writes columns for the New York Law Journal. Subjects for the 118 entries listed in his resume cover everything from space debris regulations to rules for storm water discharge.

Nothing occupies his environmental thoughts more these days than global warming. "Climate change is the most serious environmental problem facing the world," he said. "The consequences long term will be terrible if it is not vigorously addressed."

He finger-points largely at such human activity as energy usage and timbering. He knows his concern about burning coal wouldn't win many friends in West Virginia. He hopes the problem is solvable.

"It is extremely important that ways be devised to use coal cleanly so that this extremely vital energy source can continue to play its essential role in the economy."

His wife, Barbara, is a tax lawyer. They live in Chappaqua, about 30 miles north of Manhattan, where she serves as the town supervisor. Neighbors include Bill and Hillary Clinton. They also own a summer place on Long Island.

"I won't tell you how much I make," he said. "Let's just say I was able to put my sons through college without getting a loan."

Apparently he isn't the type to flaunt his affluence. "I drive a 1999 Camry to the train station and take the train to work every day."

The real secret to his success? "I work pretty hard. I care about my work. And I'm a fast writer. I learned that at the Gazette."

He returned to Charleston for his 40th GW class reunion last month and also attended reunions in 1988 and 1998. He doesn't forget his hometown in the meantime. "I have a large etching of Charleston in the 1930s above the couch in my den."

Reach Sandy Wells at 348-5173 or e-mail [email protected]

Originally published by Staff writer.

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