A Life Teaching and Practicing Environmental Law

I am director of the environmental program at the Institute for Public Representation (IPR), a clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center. I also teach basic environmental law courses in pollution control and natural resources law, as well as some advanced environmental law courses, write legal scholarship, and participate in the scholarly community at the law center. I came to Georgetown and IPR nearly 24 years ago after serving as a general counsel (and before that deputy general counsel) of the National Audubon Society as well as the director of its Public Lands and Waters Program. In those capacities, I supervised Audubon’s litigation docket, brought lawsuits in Audubon’s name, and lobbied on a range of public lands and waters issues, including the Clean Water Act and wetlands.

I have served in the federal government as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Carter Administration and been in private practice, first as an associate, during which I represented utilities proposing to construct nuclear generating plants, and then as a partner doing general corporate work for NGOs.

I have been extraordinarily lucky in my environmental practice, especially considering that when I attended law school there were no classes in environmental law, since the field had not yet emerged as a separate practice area. I have enjoyed every legal and policy position I have held in the field. The nature of these positions has allowed me to learn about different legal practice areas, to acquire a range of legal skills, to work with technical experts in an array of non-legal disciplines, and to see environmental law from a variety of perspectives. I have never been bored and have always been constantly challenged by the work expected of me. But, of all the jobs, I would have to say that teaching is the most challenging and satisfying position I have ever held.

At IPR, we represent a variety of clients, ranging from individuals who are concerned about a particular environmental threat in their neighborhoods to regional and national organizations with broader agendas. Students write briefs that are filed in state and federal court, including in the United States Supreme Court, file comments with federal and state administrative agencies, draft legislation, participate in negotiations, engage in discovery and the drafting of expert testimony, work with experts, prepare and present witnesses for agency hearings, present oral testimony at agency proceedings, and engage in very sophisticated legal research and analysis on cutting edge law reform issues. Students gain an enormous amount of substantive knowledge about environmental and related fields of law and work hard on developing their legal skills. My clinical job is to help them in all aspects of that work.

As part of my responsibilities at IPR, I also supervise two graduate fellows/staff attorneys who, in turn, help me supervise the students. On average, we have eight third-year students working on environmental projects each semester. I work closely with the graduate fellows/staff attorneys on the development of not only their teaching and supervisory skills, but also their legal skills. These graduate fellows/staff attorneys have generally had a year or more experience as a clerk, in a law firm or in a government legal position before they join our staff; sometimes they are hired directly from law school. The two-year fellowship offers a young attorney a wonderful opportunity to develop her own legal skills, while still being mentored by a more senior attorney. By the time a graduate fellow/staff attorney has left IPR, they will in all likelihood have argued at least one case in court and have had primary responsibility for managing at least one major case on our busy docket.

My advice for finding a job in the field of environmental law — other than sheer luck and good timing — is to think broadly and creatively about your job search. You should think broadly about the ways in which you can practice environmental law (e.g., NGOs, private firms, foundations, federal, state and local public service jobs, staff to a legislative committee or member, corporate general counsel’s office) and creatively about the field (e.g., public health, land use, zoning, animal welfare, food and drug, environmental crimes, human rights, even teaching, especially clinical teaching).

Regardless of the field in which you practice, be sure you are learning a skill that can help you qualify for your ideal job and are developing a positive working relationship with people who can assist you later on to get that job. Always be sure that you find a position where your work will be supervised by a more experienced attorney and where you will be given plenty of opportunities to expand your skill set. Never take a job from which it will be harder to get the next job. There should always be value added by your new job that will broaden your options when you are ready to move on. Finally, enjoy the people with whom you work and the work you are doing — perhaps this is the most important aspect of true job satisfaction.

Updated September 2021