Exploring the E-Suite with Sharon Neal, Assistant General Counsel-EHS Counsel,
Exelon BSC, Law Department
- How did you get involved in environmental law?
My interest in the environment began when I was young, around 10‑12 years old. I recall hearing my parents talk of their concerns about the environment and that triggered my curiosity. In college, I began by focusing on environmental science. In my sophomore year, a single paragraph in an environmental studies text discussed environmental law as an up-and-coming field for those with an interest in protecting the environment and shaping policy. From that moment, I decided to become an environmental lawyer. I graduated from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1988. I became a lawyer for the Illinois EPA in 1990, and I have been practicing environmental law ever since.
- What do you enjoy most about your work in environmental law?
I have never stopped finding my work in this field interesting and meaningful. No two days mirror one another. There is always something new to learn and do in light of the vast, ever changing nature of the environmental field. Even after more than 20 years with Exelon, my knowledge of the Company’s broad range of operations continues to grow. I have also so enjoyed and appreciated the many talented, intelligent and committed people with whom I have worked over my entire career, who have a wide range of expertise, such as in environmental science, investigation, remediation, nuclear operations, utility operations, regulatory and governmental affairs, and law. They have truly enriched my practice and life.
- What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of environmental law?
As a field, environmental law is especially challenging in light of the seemingly endless and changing laws, regulations, and other requirements, at the federal, state and local levels, with separate requirements for air, land, and water. It is challenging to stay current and to understand the legal implications for a large company that has many different types of complex operations. As with all fast-paced work, deadlines and competition for time are always a challenge. Also, unique to environmental law, is the deep intersection of science, law, and policy. The longer I have practiced, the more I have come to understand that you cannot possibly be an expert in all aspects of environmental law; there just too much to know and to know well. However, I do feel that what makes this field challenging also makes it continually interesting.
- What or who helped you succeed as an environmental lawyer?
I have had the privilege of working with so many exceptionally bright and experienced environmental specialists, consultants, attorneys (in-house and outside counsel) since my start in environmental law, as well as great, supportive managers and company leaders, here at Exelon, who prioritize environmental compliance and stewardship. That has made all the difference. Much of what I do is as part of a team made up of persons with diverse expertise. We work together and rely on each other to succeed.
- What do you think are the emerging issues in the field of environmental law?
Climate change will be at the heart of much of environmental law and policy going forward. There will be great emphasis on efforts to limit the operations that impact and create climate change, along with more and continuing efforts to reduce those impacts. There also will be a focus on responding and adapting to the effects that we already are seeing and that we will increasingly see in the future. We cannot overstate the significance of climate change in environmental issues going forward.
- Describe those projects as an environmental lawyer of which you are the proudest.
Looking at my career as a whole, what stands out initially is the work I did when I was with the Illinois EPA. That was my first environmental position, so my learning curve was steep. Yet, within those first couple of years, I was able to negotiate and write state laws and regulations. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to do such important work so early in my career.
I have worked on so many interesting matters at Exelon. The focus of my work has changed many times over the years, depending on regulatory and operational/business developments. Some of the most fascinating work has been supporting Exelon Nuclear, including on Clean Water Act issues. I have spent much time at our nuclear stations, including at the Quad Cities Generating Stations, which, among other things, operates a successful fish hatchery that feeds into the Mississippi River. I also had the opportunity to attend a U.S. Supreme Court argument concerning federal regulations under the Clean Water Act, which affected Exelon, among other regulated entities. I have supported Exelon on many interesting projects over the years focused on evaluating, preventing and mitigating environmental impacts. I have especially enjoyed learning about and supporting Exelon’s many environmental stewardship projects.
- Which community service or pro bono matters have been the most meaningful to you and why?
Exelon has an extensive pro bono and volunteer network, which provides opportunities for employees to participate in numerous activities that benefit a wide range of organizations and individuals in the communities that Exelon serves. At our annual Exelon Law Department All Hands clinics, attorneys and support staff work together to help many persons in single day’s event. At a recent clinic, we assisted seniors with planning and preparing important end of life documents. Last year’s clinic focused on providing support for those seeking immigration relief. Exelon’s Law Department holds such clinics annually in each of its four main cities, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
In the past year, I have also participated in some especially rewarding events and projects focused on introducing children and young adults to the field of law. A few of these events have supported “Just the Beginning”, a pipeline organization that motivates young people in economically challenged communities to become part of the legal profession and future leaders. I have also worked with young students in the “Lawyers in the Classroom” program, sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago. It is a pleasure to teach and talk with the students in these programs and encourage them to see the legal profession as meaningful and attainable.
Also, in the past year, at the recommendation of a friend and colleague within the Exelon/EHS legal group, I became a board member of Thresholds, one of the oldest and largest Illinois organizations supporting persons with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Thresholds provides a wide range of support—from care to employment to housing—for thousands of people in the broader Chicagoland community. I have been deeply gratified by the support I have received from Exelon and other friends, such as Jenner & Block, for my work on behalf of Thresholds.
- What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in your field?
I am confident that environmental law, and the field of environmental studies, in general, will continue to be important, fascinating work. If you have the opportunity to work for the government, especially early in your career, take that opportunity. Government service is an incredible place to learn, not only substantive environmental law, but many aspects of how policy comes to be law, how regulations are drafted and laws are enacted, interagency relationships, and the needs and role of the regulated community. I am grateful to have had that opportunity at the start of my career.
Ms. Neal was interviewed by Gabrielle Sigel, Co-Chair, Environmental and Workplace Health and Safety Law Practice, Jenner & Block