Staff Attorney, Earthjustice

Colin O’BrienI am a staff attorney for Earthjustice in San Francisco, California. Earthjustice is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. With more than 100 lawyers spread across ten regional offices, Earthjustice represents a broad array of clients ranging from grassroots community groups to national organizations.

I joined Earthjustice in 2011, working initially in Anchorage, Alaska. My work there focused on air quality and oceans issues. For example, I challenged two Clean Air Act permits issued by the U.S. EPA for offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, first before EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board and then the Ninth Circuit. I also litigated a federal district court case aimed at improving air quality in Fairbanks, Alaska. On the oceans front, I led several cases intended to promote a healthy ecosystem in the North Pacific, including a successful effort before the district court and Ninth Circuit to protect endangered Steller sea lions from harmful fishing practices.

Since relocating to San Francisco in 2015, my practice has centered on challenging fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure, mostly in California state court. One case sought (unsuccessfully) to end the oil industry’s state-sanctioned practice of injecting contaminated wastewater into protected aquifers that might someday supply drinking water. An ongoing case seeks to overturn a county ordinance that purports to allow the development of 75,000 oil and gas wells without any of the site-specific environmental review or mitigation required by state law. In yet another matter, I am litigating in federal district court alongside counsel for the City of Oakland to help defend an ordinance that curtails the handling and storage of coal against a developer’s claims that the measure is preempted by federal law and violates the dormant Commerce Clause.        

Surrounded by talented colleagues and challenged by my work, the most important upside of working at Earthjustice is that I am deeply invested in my job—more so than ever given the current anti-environmental administration in Washington, D.C. I am passionate about my cases, I enjoy working as part of a small, tight-knit team, and I value the high level of responsibility. Further, Earthjustice provides a friendlier and much less formal workplace than a law firm and the organization supports maintaining a more reasonable work-life balance.

Prior to Earthjustice, I worked for four years in Washington, D.C. at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). My job there consisted of monitoring and influencing EPA’s implementation of the Clean Air Act. Much of my time was spent challenging or defending EPA rulemakings before the DC Circuit. The job also involved reviewing proposed legislation, drafting fact sheets, lobbying, liaising with the media, and otherwise advocating for clean air outside of the courtroom. My experience at NRDC was terrific but I left to litigate more.

Before NRDC, I clerked for the Second Circuit and then spent four years working as an associate in the environmental practice group at Sidley Austin in New York City. My work at Sidley entailed a mixture of litigation tasks (e.g., legal research, drafting pleadings and other court filings, reviewing large volumes of documents) and transactional work (e.g., environmental due diligence, drafting contract provisions to address environmental matters, and negotiating environmental insurance coverage). My time at Sidley was very positive because my colleagues and mentors were excellent, the assignments were challenging, and the compensation was generous. However, I wasn’t always as passionate about the nature of the cases or my clients’ positions as I am now working in the public interest.

For those interested in a career with a public-interest environmental organization, I recommend taking as many environmentally-themed courses as possible and spending at least one summer at an environmental or other social justice organization. It also is essential that students learn about the principles of environmental justice. Environmental burdens and benefits are not distributed equitably; communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities have historically and currently shoulder most of the burden of environmental impacts. Consequently, though long overdue, environmental groups increasingly seek to work with a greater diversity of communities and client groups—in equitable and inclusive relationships. Earthjustice and other groups therefore are looking for job candidates that possess the cultural competency and other collaboration skills necessary to achieve success for a more expansive and inclusive movement.