September 27, 2023

Attorney Spotlight: Sarah Hoffman on How to Be an Effective Environmental Lawyer and Why She Feels at Home in California

6 min

An associate in Venable’s San Francisco office, Sarah Hoffman represents clients on a broad range of environmental and land use matters. In this recent conversation, Sarah discussed what she learned working as a litigator in New Zealand, what she enjoys about working in Venable’s San Francisco office, and what it takes to be a successful environmental practitioner.

Q: Your practice focuses on environmental law and land use. What attracted you to this area of law? 

A: Before I moved to California, I worked as a litigator in New Zealand. The case that really got me hooked on this type of law involved a Māori tribe whose land, including sacred sites, had been confiscated for forestry in the mid-twentieth century. But the government later transferred the rights to use the land to a mining company. So, we sued the government on behalf of the tribe to try and get the land back. That case really brought home to me why I love environmental law. It requires navigating the intersection of law, science, policy, history, and the politics of the moment. You need to be able to grapple with a lot of factors to be an effective environmental practitioner. 

Q: You work primarily in California, where the environment laws are somewhat stricter than in other jurisdictions. How does that affect your practice?

A: The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) continues to be a hot topic. It was enacted to protect the environment from unconstrained development. But it’s often used as a cudgel to stop environmentally beneficial projects from going forward, such as renewable energy or infill housing. There have been some high-profile cases where CEQA was used to stop or delay much-needed housing, at UC Berkeley, for instance, where a judge decided that student noise is an “environmental impact.” As a result, there have been attempts at bespoke legislative fixes to try and address issues as they arise. But there are growing calls for CEQA to be reformed, because it has created a very challenging regulatory environment.

Q: Can you describe the types of matters your practice group focuses on?

A: Our work involves counseling clients regarding environmental issues, usually in connection with the use of property. This includes advising clients on how to navigate regulatory requirements, and litigating when disputes with neighbors, government agencies, or other parties arise. We’re currently involved in litigation to bring a facility in West Oakland that has been polluting the community into compliance with the Clean Air Act and other regulations. We’re also working with California water agencies on litigation related to their water rights and water quality standards. On the entitlement side, we tackle projects of all sizes. On one end of the spectrum, we’re providing counsel on a large highway expansion project. At the other end, we’re advising a small community group that’s having trouble securing permission to convert property they purchased in San Francisco into a meeting space. So, it really runs the gamut.

Q: You’ve also done some work for Native American tribes. What kinds of issues tend to arise in these communities?

A: It’s an interesting area in that Native American Nations have sovereignty over their land (unlike in New Zealand), but in many cases the federal government has failed to protect their interests. For instance, we advised a Nation that was looking to develop forestry assets on their land so they could develop and trade carbon credits. But to enter the carbon-trading scheme, the tribe would have had to partially waive their sovereignty. So, part of our work involved assessing the risks and benefits associated with carbon credits, and then helping the tribe make the decision that was in their best interests.

Q: What kind of trends are you seeing in the land use and environmental law space at the state and federal levels?

A: There’s a lot of uncertainty at the federal level. For instance, the Biden administration recently proposed new National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations that, if enacted, would likely lengthen the environmental review process because they require public agencies to do more when analyzing a project’s impacts. But at the same time, Congress passed legislation to streamline the NEPA review process.  And recent Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act and limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In California, we’re also seeing a conflict between state-level policies and local agencies, particularly when it comes to complying with new state housing laws. We need to stay on top of this constantly changing regulatory landscape, so we can advise our clients regarding how such changes may affect their interests.

Q: You also work with the BASF Barrister’s Club. What does that involve?  

A: The Barrister’s Club is the division of the San Francisco Bar Association that focuses on lawyers in their first ten years of practice. I’m the incoming president of the club and currently chair of the Wellness Committee. That involves scheduling events such as hikes, yoga classes, and other social activities so members can get to spend time together and build networks. The idea is to create a community of younger attorneys across different firms, who can learn about each other’s practices, discuss professional challenges, and support each other’s development.

Q: And, finally, you’ve been working for Venable San Francisco for a couple of years now. Is California starting to feel like home?

A: What I like most about the San Francisco office is that we’ve got all the benefits of being part of a big firm in terms of the interesting client base and the resources we can offer them. But at the same time, there’s a really tight-knit, collegial atmosphere, where everyone knows everyone else and enjoys spending time together. Aside from that, there are many things I love about living in California, particularly the entrepreneurial culture, and how people are not afraid to try big things. I also really appreciate the proximity to the outdoors, especially in the Bay area. I hike and backpack a lot, so being able to explore national parks and green spaces in the city has really helped me feel at home here.

To learn more about Sarah Hoffman’s environmental and land use practice, please click here.

See other stories in our San Francisco office series:

Jim Nelson on the Office’s Evolution and on What Lies Ahead

Amit Rana on Empowering Innovative Consumer Goods Clients in a Challenging Regulatory Space

Becca Chappell on the Benefits of Supporting Other Women Attorneys and Engaging with the Bay Area Community

Build It, and They Will Come: Ten Years On, Three Venable Partners Reminisce About Opening the San Francisco Office