Profile - Dana Hall, GC, Core Development Group

Thursday 25 June 2020

Dana Hall became General Counsel at Core Development Group, a major US solar energy company, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States. She tells In-House Perspective about adjusting to a new role during the onset of a pandemic, and how her in-house position allows her to focus on her passion for the clean energy sector and on climate solutions.

In late 2019, Dana Hall was not looking for a new job. In fact, she had been ‘full steam ahead’ with her own private practice and was enjoying working independently with New York clients in an industry she believed in: renewable energy. But when the founder of Core Development Group, a solar energy provider, reached out to Hall on LinkedIn, she decided it could be a rewarding experience and that she could bring value to the company. Most importantly, her career goals and underlying personal objectives – to work in the clean energy sector and towards climate solutions – would be met if she joined the company.

Hall tells In-House Perspective that ‘these objectives are really what drives me across every decision in my career. I believe we need to take action and I’m doing whatever I can professionally to see that happen’.

These objectives have guided Hall’s professional career from the outset. She had originally gone to Ohio State University to study music, but ended up getting a Bachelor’s degree so that she could take more academic classes in environmental issues. She then took on a Master's course in Environmental Conservation Education at New York University and finally found her way to the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, solely so she could study energy policy. She says New Jersey’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which provides a market-based solution to renewable energy, had piqued her interest.

But Hall traces the origin of her career trajectory back further, to high school, where she remembers becoming aware of environmental issues as a teenager. ‘I was quite the teen activist’, she says. Having been raised by a progressive mother, she says she was conscious of social justice issues from an early age, and still carries the Jewish concept Tikkun olam, or ‘repair of the world’, in her mind. ‘Every career choice I’ve made since then’, she says, ‘has been about furthering that goal’.

‘I do have to jump back and forth between, for example, contract obligations one minute and then digging into solar policy in Pennsylvania the next, and then handling HR and on-boarding matters, but I don’t mind the challenge of that’

Once out of law school, she began interning at and eventually began her first job at the non-profit Pace Energy and Climate Center. That’s where she caught the bug for renewable energy law, working as their Energy Policy Coordinator. She moved on two years later, and after dipping into teaching, consultancy and a brief in-house stint at Bright Power Inc, she was recruited by a board member of the Low Impact Hydropower Institute (LIHI) in New Jersey. She began in 2009 as the Secretary of the Governing Board, and from 2013 to 2017 took on the challenge of Director of Operations.

Hall says she is glad she spent half of her career working at non-profits, which to Hall are ‘mission driven and have a diverse set of constituents and stakeholders, which provides an exciting challenge and feeds my hunger to solve problems’. She points to the innovative and unusual origin of LIHI, which she says ‘came out of the dynamic of environmental non-governmental organisations, resource agencies and the hydropower industry working together towards solutions, instead of against each other’.

LIHI certification ‘enhances economic viability for clean, renewable generation while also supporting reinvestment in the protection of local river ecosystems’, Hall says. The programme uses eight science-based environmental, cultural and recreational criteria to evaluate hydroelectric projects and certify them as ‘low impact’. Hall notes that achieving this requires the credibility of involvement from reputable environmental groups and the engagement of hydropower asset owners.

After her tenure with LIHI ended in 2017, Hall chose to set up her own practice, still focused on renewable energy. She says she found it empowering to be able to select clients who are active in renewable energy, allowing her to continue working towards her goals. She’d had a private practice since 2010, but it became her primary focus in 2017 and incorporated in 2018. She provided legal services in renewable energy in New York, as well as offering some legal work to the music industry.

The sole client

Now, since December 2019, Core Development Group is her sole client. The company calls itself a ‘leading solar energy company and [engineering, procurement and construction, EPC] provider’, with an in-house engineering department and developers. As well as offering services for utility scale photovoltaics projects, it also provides development for commercial and industrial sectors. The company is active in several states, including New Jersey and New York, with the former the first state to pass a renewable energy standard. Hall highlights that not only does the company ‘assemble the parties and terms to bring deals together, but we also build solar projects as an EPC provider’.

As its General Counsel, Hall works directly with the company’s CEO and two vice-presidents as part of an executive team, providing advice to the leadership team on all aspects of the company’s business, including company development and negotiations. She breaks her role down into three parts. Firstly, analysing policies that may influence strategic decisions; secondly, operations, particularly within the manufacturing side of the company’s work, such as carrying out contract obligations and guiding the staff on any issues; and finally human resources and compliance.

She says ‘the mission at Core is to maximise the potential to develop solar energy, and I am delighted to be a part of that objective.’

‘It’s so important to join bar associations and other groups. No one lawyer can know everything’

As the only counsel in-house at the company, Hall says her advice is requested from all sides of the business, and she enjoys working with such a diverse team. She says, ‘I wear a lot of hats, because the work is quite generalised and interdisciplinary’. And this is something she really enjoys. ‘I do have to jump back and forth between, for example, contract obligations one minute and then digging into solar policy in Pennsylvania the next, and then handling HR and on-boarding matters, but I don’t mind the challenge of that,’ she says. ‘It keeps my day interesting.’

Hall tells In-House Perspective that she finds working in-house empowering and engaging. She says she feels valued and trusted, and is given the trust and freedom to pursue her interests and to guide the company on what will be effective. She is enjoying being part of a team, and acknowledges that solo practice can be a little lonely, ‘which is why it’s so important to join bar associations and other groups. No one lawyer can know everything’.

Hall admits that sometimes she does miss working for herself, but, in some ways it feels the same because her employer is the client. It’s also interesting to be the client when working with external law firms, instead of being seen as a competitor with other energy lawyers. Hall says she sees this new dynamic as a chance to learn from the expertise of specialist law firms.

Working in a pandemic

And in the face of Covid-19, which hit so soon after she took up her position at Core Development Group, she is relieved to be working in-house. ‘Solo practice’, she says, ‘would be a huge challenge in the current environment.’

She is also glad that she had continued networking with the tight-knit energy policy community after moving in-house, because she has been able to lean on the resources and support of that group throughout the pandemic. Hall says Core Development Group has been very fortunate in that energy is an essential service, but when the United States issued Covid-19 restrictions, the company had concerns about job delays, materials and supply chain and contracts. ‘Fortunately, the work of the company continues despite the pandemic, and our business development team is busy’.

She says that thanks to the Association of Corporate Counsel, which she joined shortly after moving in-house, there were plenty of resources available to help her respond. Hall believes Covid-19 has given her a depth of valuable experience in responding to a crisis.

Internally, the company has made use of the swathes of tech solutions to ensure communication within the team has not been hampered. ‘The pandemic hasn’t changed how I think about work’, she says. ‘Digital tools are helping plug the gaps and we are adjusting to a new way of doing business’.

‘Solo practice would be a huge challenge in the current [Covid-19] environment’

Being in-house, Hall quite often gets calls from law firms who are keen to stay in touch throughout the pandemic, so although impromptu and face-to-face networking opportunities have decreased, a different kind of networking is filling the gap.

And despite the company’s initial fears, some of their work became more important than ever. One of their clients is a large hospital chain that had begun building new hospitals before the pandemic hit. The company has faced problems within their supply chain, but most of their equipment was already on its way.

Their contracts have long lead times, so Hall says that while they are able to weather the storm for now, the next big challenge will be new contracts, which has already begun to slow down. Much of their ongoing work can continue, but with adjustments. Hall mentions that site visits can still go ahead, for example, as long as social distancing is observed by all parties.

In fact, in early April, Core Development Group announced a strategic expansion with multiple hires following the addition of new clients and partnerships with sustainability-forward companies in Polynesia and the United Kingdom, as well as the US. Core’s founder, Henry Cortes, says he is ‘humbled’ to be offering new opportunities in the midst of ‘uncertain times and rapidly-growing unemployment rates’.

Engaging with politics and policy

Hall has also been keen to stay active at the policy level, and the company joined the New York Solar Energy Industries Association (NYSEIA) in late April. Core Development Group was already part of the American Sustainable Business Council and its local chapter the New Jersey Sustainable Business Council, having joined in February.

Hall says many companies, especially smaller ones, don’t have the resources for someone to work in a dedicated policy position, so instead Hall is Core’s primary contact with valuable industry advocates, like NYSEIA and the Councils. These memberships allow Hall to help shape legislation, which she says is particularly important in the context of the pandemic.

Hall and Core Development Group as a whole are concerned about keeping the focus on renewable energy in the current political environment, with Covid-19 taking precedence in all areas.

She says Covid-19 ‘has shut the planet down, but what happens next? Climate solutions must be part of the lockdown release’. She says Core Development Group is banking on a continued trajectory for growth, because they hope that clean energy will be valued even more, especially now that the world has seen the extent to which behaviour can change when it is necessitated by a global crisis.

Hall admits that the clean energy sector has been facing a toxic political environment, but the company wants to see policies in place at a national level and she is committed to working towards that goal.

‘Covid-19 has shut the planet down, but what happens next? Climate solutions must be part of the lockdown release’

Hall says ‘when it comes to renewable energy, the US hasn’t really had a national policy since the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act was passed in 1978. As a result, states are all doing it very differently and it’s challenging for any company to navigate this system’. Thankfully for Core Development Group, Hall has a passion for policy.

This means working actively with competitors, but Hall says that businesses in the industry are united in this, because all want the industry to scale up as much as possible. Hall says ‘we might be competing for business but we all need opportunities to grow and that happens through politics and policies, and keeping the world’s focus on climate breakdown. Addressing the climate crisis is really what our work is all about’.

Hall’s passion for climate solutions doesn’t end there. Always looking to the future, in the spring of 2020 she became an adjunct instructor at SUNY Purchase, teaching a course on energy and society. The course is for students without a science background, a cohort that Hall hasn’t worked with before. She says their innovative approach to the issue of climate breakdown is inspiring, particularly given the way they face up to a crisis that will hit their generation particularly hard.

Finding it exciting to work with them, Hall says that their drive reinforces those objectives she has been pursuing for most of her life.