Fossil fuels may be in doldrums but energy lawyers are adapting to the new environment

By Julius Melnitzer | October 25, 2021

Fossil fuels may be in the doldrums with a precipitous future ahead, but energy law and the demand for energy lawyers is alive and well.

“Generally speaking, recruitment activity in the overall energy sector has increased,” said Carrie Heller, president of The Heller Group Legal and Executive Search, a Toronto-based legal recruitment firm. “But the focus has changed from oil and gas, and mining, to renewable energy, with an increased demand for project finance, infrastructure, environmental and indigenous law expertise in these roles.”

According to Vivek Warrier, the Calgary-based co-head of Bennett Jones LLP’s energy and oil and gas industry team, M&A and project development work has remained relatively constant despite volatile commodity prices.

“There was a bit of a blip as activity slowed during the pandemic, but activity levels have grown and restored in the past six months,” he said.

Put that beside what Warrier calls the “really significant growth” in renewables and the “frenzied interest” in hydrogen and geothermal energy, and it’s no surprise that Bennett Jones’ hiring levels have not diminished.

But where is the new expertise coming from?

“We have not experienced cuts recently among energy law departments,” Heller said. “So I think it’s safe to assume that lawyers are adapting to the new environment by gaining expertise in the energy growth areas.”

Senior lawyers do so with the advantage of a deep understanding of the industry.

“It would take years to bring someone without energy industry knowledge up to speed,” said Melanie Gillis in McInnes Cooper’s Halifax office.

Corporate securities lawyers, for example, who may have previously focused on oil and gas have broadened their practices to embrace industries such as cleantech and renewable energy.

No surprise, then, that both law firms and in-house departments are looking for experience.

“Law firms have focused on senior hires, particularly those with practices,” Heller said. “And our in-house mandates are generally looking for 8 to 20 years’ experience.”

Meanwhile, adaptability is also the name of the game for younger lawyers.

“As far as the junior associates go, they simply shift gears and deploy their skills into the new growth areas,” Warrier says.

And, by all accounts, they do so eagerly.

“We’ve seen very strong interest in energy law from our summer and articling students, and we expect this trend to show continuing growth,” Gillis said.

While most law firms grow their base of junior associates organically through the summer student and articling processes, and while the pyramid structure of most large law firms means that junior associates will outnumber almost any other group, the scarcer supply of mid-level practitioners is very much in play in the recruitment market.

“The point at which associates are tempted to leave law firms for in-house legal departments is after about five or six years of practice,” Warrier said. “There’s a huge demand for this group, so much so that associates across the city are getting calls as larger companies start restocking their talent base.”

Energy law has also become more textured, drawing in a broader range of expertise than in the past.

“Virtually every lawyer on the corporate side will intersect with energy,” Warrier said.

Perhaps most significantly, environment, social and governance (ESG) considerations, particularly those relating to the environment and Indigenous rights, have become integral to most energy law practices.

“Increasingly, ESG is a front-of-mind agenda item from the very start of any energy infrastructure project,” Gillis said.

The upshot is that energy law has become very complicated and multidimensional.

“It’s a matrix of risk management, financing, innovation, technical knowledge, understanding how the energy grid works, and what the energy landscape will look like in 10 or 20 years — among other things,” Gillis said.

As it turns out, the confluence of ESG and energy law has facilitated lawyers and law firms’ ability to adapt to the energy evolution.

“ESG used to be a niche practice,” says John Terry of Torys’ LLP in Toronto. “Now everyone across the firm is involved in it in one form or another.”

So while renewables, for example, may be relative latecomers to the energy circle, ESG has been around much longer.

“We’ve been doing it for decades, for our entire careers,” says Dennis Mahony, the Toronto-based co-chair of Torys’ interdisciplinary climate change and emissions trading practice.

Julius Melnitzer is a Toronto-based legal affairs writer, ghostwriter, writing coach and media trainer. Readers can reach him at julius@legalwriter.net or https://legalwriter.net/contact.

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