By Clarissa Sansone
Just because it's a law firm doesn't mean it's soulless. Just because it's an NGO doesn't make it apolitical. And just because you want to be an environmental lawyer doesn't mean you shouldn't take bankruptcy and property courses.
Alumni working in the private, public-interest, government, and academic sectors shared these and other insights into practicing environmental law at the Environmental Law Society's annual alumni panel on March 8.
Prompted by Prof. David Uhlmann, who moderated, the four panelists shared what they love (and don't love) about their jobs, what they wished they'd taken advantage of as law students, and what helped them the most in their careers.
One thing they all agreed on is that environmental law is a broad field that often requires tapping into a range of legal knowledge. For example: "Property law is a lot more important than you think," said Chris Miller, '92, who is president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, a Virginia nonprofit focused on conservation. In addition, Miller said, "Twenty percent of what I do is tax law."
"I do bankruptcy work," said Rick Nagle, '87, who works for the EPA. Nagle advised students to consider their curricular options beyond environmental law classes. And even beyond law classes in general. Megan McCulloch, '05, a partner in the Environmental Law Department at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, suggested students "get outside the legal box" to improve their career options.
Visiting professor Noah Hall, '98, pointed out the importance of identifying and developing a specialty niche (his is water law) for students to make themselves more marketable. "You individually are your own brand," Hall said.
To get a foot in the door in a tough job market, panelists advised taking advantage of summer fellowships and internships, even unpaid ones, and making the most of them. "Be diligent, and be flexible," Nagle added, suggesting new grads consider working in smaller markets and moving on to larger ones.
Finally, the four alumni shared advice on what they know now, but wished they had known in law school. Hall and Miller both stressed the importance of taking part in moot court competitions to get experience in making oral arguments.
Other advice was more general. "Work on your people skills," said Nagle, who observed that an environmental lawyer works with a variety of stakeholders and is "almost a little politician." McCulloch urged students to be open to taking opportunities as they arise."Don't be so focused on what you thought you wanted," she said.
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