“Welcome to Wetlands Law and Navigation, I’ll Be Your Professor”
Steve Dawson’s first day as an LL.M. candidate at GW Law was a particularly stressful one, and to understand why, you have to go back to the Reagan Administration.
In Washington, DC, Dawson and Associates is known for being the go-to firm for both private and public entities who are trying to navigate the tricky waters of federal environmental regulatory compliance. Hanging on the wall in the Eye Street offices of Dawson and Associates is a political cartoon that portrays founder Robert Dawson as a fox. The fox is being congratulated by Ronald Reagan for guarding a hen house that has clearly been ransacked. Mr. Dawson was assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works from 1981 to 1987, and his orders from President Reagan were to reform many of the regulations involving water projects and development. As the cartoon would imply, Mr. Dawson’s job created quite a bit of controversy.
During his tenure as Assistant Secretary, Mr. Dawson often found himself working with Lance D. Wood, who has held the position of assistant chief counsel of the Environmental Law and Regulatory Programs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since 1978. The relationship between Robert Dawson and Lance Wood, while professional, could have at times been described as “adversarial,” particularly when it came to Reagan Administration reform proposals for the Corps regulatory program.
Mr. Dawson’s son Steve, who is currently earning his LL.M. at GW Law, had no way of knowing this when he walked into Professor Wood’s Wetlands Law and Navigation class, so he was quite surprised to be called out by name.
“Professor Wood fixed me with this look, and asked me, ‘Are you Bob Dawson’s son?’ And my blood just ran cold.”
The story has a happy ending. “He turned out to be my absolute favorite professor, believe it or not,” Steve says. “But on that first day, the only thing that popped into my head was ‘Man, I better really nail this class.’” Professor Wood later recalled that Steve Dawson received an A+.
“The VaCo Guy”
In the course of his work, Steve Dawson often interacts with Congressman and their staff members. To some staffers on Capitol Hill, he is known as “The VaCo guy.” At least that’s how they address him when they first meet him. As in, “Hey, you’re the VaCo guy!” Once introductions have been properly made, he goes back to being addressed by his actual name. “VaCo” would be Virginia Coalition, which is a band that toured extensively from 1998 until 2008. Steve was their guitar player and co-frontman until 2003.
“If you spend six years playing shows at almost every college east of the Mississippi River and in most of the cities in America, you’re bound to appear a little familiar to a few people,” Steve says. “The Chief of Staff of one Congressman actually booked us to play his fraternity at UNC back in the day. If anything, it definitely helps to break the ice.”
He married his wife Jaime in 2002, and they were soon expecting a child. “We were doing well as a band, but with a newborn child our touring schedule wasn’t feasible for me,” says Steve. “There’s an old joke that goes like this: ‘What’s the difference between a musician and a large pizza? Only one of them can properly feed a family.’”
Steve left Virginia Coalition and enrolled in The University of Baltimore School of Law, working at Dawson and Associates during the day and attending classes at night. He was getting three very intense educations at once: the first being the coursework required to earn a J.D., the second being an education on federal environmental compliance, and the third on how to be a dad.
He would leave his Alexandria, Virginia home in the morning, work eight hours at Dawson and Associates, and then either drive up to Baltimore or take the MARC train for his classes. “Personally, I preferred driving. I could listen to music and Zen out a little bit before parachuting into Contracts or Torts.” He would then go home, eat dinner and sleep, or maybe not, depending on his infant daughter Nolan’s thoughts on the matter.
Not “Associates” In the Traditional Sense
When he earned his J.D. in 2008, Steve opted to remain at Dawson and Associates. “The work that I was doing there was practical, real world stuff,” Steve says. “It's environmental law and policy, and it's right in the middle of where private development meets the federal rulebook. It’s something that has to be figured out if anything is going to be built.”
Being surrounded by this level of expertise was both inspiring and frustrating. “It was an interesting position to be in, that’s for sure,” Steve says. “The title of the firm is a bit misleading, because it isn’t ‘Associates’ in the traditional law firm sense. The majority of our ‘associates’ are former public servants with 30 years of federal agency experience, including one who quite literally participated in the writing of the Clean Water Act in 1972.”
Steve conferred with John Deason, who is a Senior Advisor at Dawson and Associates and the lead professor of George Washington University’s Environmental and Energy Management program, and Professor Deason recommended GW Law’s LL.M. in Environmental Law program. “At work, I was getting a master class in environmental regulatory compliance every day, but it was like taking Clean Water Act 690 without having the benefit of taken Clean Water Act 101,” Steve says. “Taking classes from professors like Lance Wood gave me the serious grounding in environmental regulations that I needed to perform my job more effectively. Plus, I learned more than a few things that some associates at D & A didn’t know.”
Still the VaCo Guy
Steve recently signed an Of Counsel agreement with Boston-based firm Sullivan and Worcester, who are looking to bolster their presence in Washington, D.C. His daughter Nolan now has a sister, Annie, and a brother, Bennett. He still works with Dawson and Associates, and about ten times a year, he plays shows with Virginia Coalition. They book the occasional weekend show in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore, and about once a year around the winter holidays they book a show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. The D.C. shows are almost always filled to capacity. “It’s ridiculously fun,” says Steve. “I get to play music with the guys that I grew up with, and people still like to come out and see us and have a good time.”
Even that Congressman’s Chief of Staff?
“Oh, yeah. D.C. people can get pretty funky when they want to.”
- Adam Dawson (No Relation)