Law professor formerly served as chair of MPSC

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Laura Chappelle followed in her father's footsteps. A sole practitioner specializing in Family Law and Bankruptcy in Saginaw, he told her from an early age about the rewarding experiences women could have with the practice of law.

Her father was right. Chappelle, an attorney and a former chairman and commissioner with the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), has enjoyed more than 20 years of experience in state government, currently works as an independent consultant to energy companies and organizations, and serves as a Commissioner-at-Large on the State Bar of Michigan Board of Commissioners.

She also teaches Energy Law and Policy as an adjunct professor at Michigan State University College of Law and at her alma mater, Cooley Law School in Lansing.

Chappelle was initially appointed to the MPSC in 2001 by then-Governor John Engler, serving as chairman until August 2003, and as a commissioner until June 2007. During her tenure, she was President of the OMS, Vice Chair of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Committee on Electricity, Vice President of the Organization of PJM States, Inc. (OPSI), Chair of NARUC's Broadband over Power Lines Task Force, and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy's Electricity Advisory Board.

Chappelle was actively involved in issues relating to various energy and telecommunication issues, including the development and implementation of the first "multi-state entity" approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), state retail electric choice markets, and the first FERC-recognized independent transmission companies. She was a key adviser to Engler in the drafting and implementation of Michigan's nationally recognized "Broadband" law that, in part, coordinated and streamlined local and state right-of-way regulations for telecommunications and Internet providers.

The MPSC was a challenging job, trying to balance competing interests in terms of energy availability and prices, Chappelle says.

"The Legislature and the Governor are routinely involved in energy policy, so the chairman and commissioners stay busy with legislative and executive information and advice. I think I enjoyed working the most with the Public Service Commission staff members. Many have been there 20 years or longer, so as with many administrative positions, they are often the true experts."

Prior to the MPSC appointment, Chappelle served as deputy legal counsel and regulatory affairs coordinator for Engler.

"I have a profound respect for former Governor Engler, and consider my time in his legal/policy offices as among the hardest, but most enjoyable work I've ever performed," she says.

"I had tremendous admiration for the fact that he tackled big, policy issues--not being afraid of a challenge. I often think he wasn't given enough credit for bringing diverse interests together on any given issue. He had an extremely good, professional relationship with many of the key Democratic legislators. He also was exceptionally well versed in any particular policy area, spending a great deal of time reading up on the issues and wanting to understand the legal ramifications of any action. And certainly, I liked the fact that he was a Cooley grad as well!"

Chappelle was a long-time policy staff member in the Michigan Legislature when someone suggested she help out with the House Energy Committee.

"I immediately loved the work," she says. "Energy is one of those issue areas that is ever-changing and evolving. Many of the legal issues in electricity are issues that policy-makers on the federal and state level have been grappling with for over 75 years --for example, the ongoing tension between federal and state jurisdiction--but new and emerging technologies in energy are always fascinating, such as plug-in vehicles, wind and solar renewable energy resources, and the recent discovery of the large natural gas reserves in the U.S."

Chappelle, who has also served as regulatory affairs advisor to the House of Representatives, legislative aide for Sen. William Van Regenmorter, attorney for House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, assistant prosecuting attorney with the Saginaw County Prosecutor's Office, and as a law clerk for two Saginaw County Circuit Court judges, earned a double major in communications and history from the University of Michigan and her law degree from Cooley Law School, where she initially underestimated the difficulty of her legal studies.

"That was a mistake, but a valuable lesson," she says. "I think I worked just as hard--or harder--in law school after my first semester than I would have at any other law school. Once I re-adjusted and put the time and dedication into my studies, it really paid off - not only in good grades, but just a more rewarding law school experience. I'm still very close with some of my fellow law school students."

She enjoys teaching the next generation of lawyers, discussing issues like mountain-top coal removal, solar energy, and nuclear plants especially when students lend perspective given their past work or living arrangements.

"It's true what they say--you teach because you love it--especially for adjuncts, as there really isn't a lot of compensation involved," she says. "A good law student will always make me a better instructor. He or she will question certain aspects on an energy issue, or impart a slightly different understanding, based on where they've lived and their experiences.

"I sympathize with the difficulty that students face in entering the job market today. I think that is often expressed as a real challenge for students. I tell them that some experience in Energy Law really can help them be more marketable. It's such a wonderful field these days, for men and women alike."

She finds students are eager to learn what mostly is a new issue area for them.

"I'm always impressed with the regional and personal diversity of the students. It's what makes the class all the more interesting to teach."

Some things have changed since her days as a Cooley student--for instance, her professors didn't supply Power Points as study aids.

"Some days it feels as if I'm doing the students' homework," she says. "But then again, I think the pressures on law students are the same today as they were 20 years ago when I attended school. Both MSU and Cooley grade on a curve, so students still have to keep up with their studies and strive for that good grade."

Married to an MSU grad she met at Cooley, Chappelle is mom to four "very active" children, all heavily involved in sports, mostly soccer - and Chappelle and her husband spends a lot of time cheering on the sidelines.

"We also like to head up north when we can and go skiing, boating, or just hang out near the water. We're lucky to live in such a beautiful state."

Published: Mon, Sep 10, 2012