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By Katie Vloet
Some love rocks, some love rivers. Some are haunted by tragedies; others are driven
by the pursuit of wrongdoers.
"I grew up in New Jersey and watched fish in a lake that I lived across the street from go belly-up one day. And I watched some of the last space be subdivided in the city I grew up in. That sensitized me to these issues," says Fred Krupp, '78, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
People who pursue environmental law as a career have their reasons, many of which we will highlight in the alumni profiles that follow. No matter the reasons, this is an exciting—some would say unsettled—time in the field of environmental law.
The political landscape has veered dramatically since a time when most legislators, Republican and Democrat, supported passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and nearly two dozen environmental statutes during the 1970s. Indeed, environmental issues have become divisive and, at times, politically hazardous—perhaps the reason that neither major-party candidate for president has focused much on them during the current election cycle. But this is exactly the time when environmental issues most need to be addressed, says David Uhlmann, the Jeffrey F. Liss Professor from Practice and the founding director of the five-year-old Environmental Law and Policy Program (ELPP) at Michigan.
"It's hard to think of a time when partisan differences were greater," he says. "But it's also hard to think of a time when environmental issues loomed larger."
A bit of doom and gloom hung in the air at the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) conference, which ELPP brought to Michigan Law in March. Speakers at the conference said there are plenty of reasons to feel cynical about the attitude in Washington toward environmental issues.
Still, many of them pointed out, there are glimmers of hope: state and local regulations that have been beneficial, changes in the international environmental scene that show promise, and the fact that so many law students attended the conference and are impassioned about the issue.
"Now it becomes your story," NAELS Executive Director Dan Worth told students at the conference, "25 Years Back, 25 Years Forward: Environmental Law at the Crossroads."
Scott Robinson, 3L, is one of the students who will shape the narrative of that story. With one year to go in law school, he already feels prepared to have an impact on the field of environmental law, and on the world in general.
Robinson is one of six student supervisors for Uhlmann's Environmental Crimes Project, the first comprehensive, empirical study of environmental criminal prosecutions in the country. More than 100 students have collaborated on the two-year-old project, creating a searchable database about pollution prosecutions investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
He also was part of a yearlong project examining fracking, with ELPP lecturer Sara Gosman, and has worked in the Environmental Law Clinic. "It's been a tremendous experience. I feel like I'm gaining the experience in law school that I'll need to go out into the world and be a successful environmental lawyer," he says.
Liz Och, currently in her third of four years as a dual-degree student, has been involved in a variety of ways: co-chairing an ELPP symposium, serving on the founding committee of the new Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law (MJEAL), serving as president of the Law School Student Senate, and working toward degrees from the Law School and the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Och credits the documentary
An Inconvenient Truth with piquing her interest in climate change. She said she is drawn to the issue not only because it's complex and challenging, but also "because it affects everyone.
"This isn't an issue you can avoid by moving to a different part of the world, or by choosing the country over
the city," Och says. "It's truly a universal issue that is going to involve serious coordination between actors.
It's daunting, but it provides an opportunity to be a part of shaping the future that we live in."
Like Robinson, Och plans to take the Environmental Law Clinic, which operates in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor and is directed by NWF senior counsel and Adjunct Professor Neil Kagan. Mark Van Putten, '82, began the clinic the year he graduated from Michigan Law, making it one of the oldest environmental law clinics in the country. Students in the clinic—or "collaborators,"
as Professor Kagan considers them—write briefs and comments on cases, including those dealing with Great Lakes water quality.
"In the past, our biggest concern was toxic pollution," Professor Kagan says. "These days, we deal with 180 nonindigenous invasive species, such as zebra mussels, which disrupt the ecosystem. We also deal with issues
like oil spills, as well as trying to keep out future invasive species, such as Asian carp."
The students work on all of these issues; Robinson, for instance, wrote comments on behalf of the NWF regarding threats that invasive species pose to the Great Lakes in light of a proposed EPA vessel permitting process.
Says Professor Kagan: "The students tell me they enjoy the clinic because it gives them an opportunity to practice what they've been learning in class. They get a ton of practical experience in the nuts and bolts of litigation."
The clinic has been around for three decades, and years ago professors Joseph Sax and Jim Krier made Michigan one of the nation's premier schools for the study of environmental law (see related story, page 32). A resurgence is under way right now, with the addition of ELPP five years ago and the growth of course offerings from about six per year to 25 different classes during the course of those five years.
When Uhlmann arrived, he set out to make ELPP a multifaceted program, with extensive course offerings, a lecture series featuring prominent environmental law professors and practitioners, a speaker series about environmental law careers, and an annual conference focusing on environmental law and policy.
"The program is far more mature than its five years," Uhlmann says.
Those classes range from traditional introductory and advanced courses to innovative skills-focused courses such as Environmental Alternative Dispute Resolution, says Professor Nina Mendelson, who came to Michigan Law in 1999 after working as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division. The curriculum includes a "sweeping array of courses," she says, ranging from traditional doctrinal courses to those focusing on policy concerns and in detail on practice challenges.
"Our environmental courses provide students the chance to apply their conceptual and analytical tools to complex current real-world problems, whether it is analyzing policy responses to global warming or legal tools to address the threat presented by Asian carp to the Great Lakes," says Mendelson, who currently serves as one of three United States special legal advisers to the NAFTA Commission on Environmental Cooperation.
"We seek to train our students in analytical and conceptual thinking at the highest levels," she says, "as well as to equip them for the profession with a practical focus on problem solving skills, advocacy, and ethics. We want our graduates to be as ready as possible to hit the ground running."
Since the school launched ELPP in 2007, Michigan Law has welcomed former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, then-Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and the presidents of the National Wildlife Foundation, Earthjustice, and the Environmental Law Institute, as well as top environmental lawyers from the federal and state governments and major law firms and corporations throughout the United States.
In the past year alone, Michigan Law hosted the 25th Annual Conference of the NAELS, heralded one of the first new journals in more than a decade, the MJEAL, and developed the first-ever judicial accountability project, "Green Gavels," in conjunction with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (see related story, at right). In the coming year, Michigan Law students will be eligible to receive $20,000 grants as part of the Dow Sustainability Fellowship Program offered by the University's Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute.
In addition to an impressive crop of full-time faculty members, high-profile visiting professors and adjuncts add to the range of expertise offered at Michigan.
"The ELPP faculty is remarkable," says Assistant Professor Kristina Daugirdas, who previously worked as an attorney-adviser at the U.S. Department of State, "not only for the depth but also the breadth of its collective expertise and experience working with environmental issues from every angle and at every level, from local to international."
Those who choose the field must make the decision about how and where to practice: at a large firm, a nonprofit, a corporation, or a boutique firm?
"There are two ways of being an environmental lawyer: One is the Robin Hood practice of environmental law, in which you work at a firm, then volunteer for advocacy groups. That is a model that has been used frequently, but the problem is that large law firms have so many conflicts, both real conflicts and issues on which they would not want to anger their business clients," says Chuck Dayton, '64.
"The other model is the shoestring practice of environmental law, which is what I did in the 1970s. I left my firm, went to MPIRG [the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group], then started my own firm." His career came full-circle when he was 50 years old and his small firm joined with a larger one, Leonard, Street and Deinard.
"Many of my friends who once worked on hazardous waste cleanup matters now represent the mining interests," Dayton says. "They are good people who care about the environment, but the realities of big-firm practice are that if you have a big-paying client, you don't turn down the business because you might happen to disagree with some of what they may be doing, unless it's egregious. That just goes with the territory. There can be a kind of moral numbness that goes along with it."
Yet there are ways to have a positive impact without having to compromise one's values, or to work with businesses to encourage them to make sustainable decisions.
Regardless of the exact path one takes, everyone in the field shares something in common:
"We're all in this, we environmental lawyers, because we care about the environment," Gary Ballesteros,'88, vice president (law) of Rockwell Automation, said during a recent ELPP Careers in Environmental Law Speakers Series talk at the Law School.
Ballesteros, who studied environmental law at Michigan with Professor Krier, said he used to see a black hat/white hat divide between the bad guys and the good guys—that is, people trying to harm the environment and those trying to save it. His experience through the years is much more nuanced, and he has found many people in the business world who support environmental progress. He told the students in the audience they could support the environment in their work—certainly if they decide to work at a nonprofit or a small firm, but even if they worked within industry.
"You can do well and do good in this career."
Lori Atherton and John Masson contributed to this story.
Images courtesy of Earth as Art, USGS,
Alumni in Environmental Law
Professor Joseph Sax and his Intellectual Home at Michigan Law
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