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Posted February 26, 2008

Future Bright for Environmental Lawyers, Panel Says

Tamara Fishman
Cale Jaffe ’01, who spoke at the event, is an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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Mary Wood

The 1970s signaled the first wave of modern environmental law with the passage of the Clean Air Act and other legislation designed to tackle the environmental problem of the day: air, water, and ground pollution. Today, issues related to climate change, carbon trading, water scarcity, and bulging landfills have given rise to rapidly expanding environmental law offices at private firms, NGOs, and government agencies at all levels.

“Everyone acknowledges that Congress is going to enact some form of carbon legislation in the next few years—that’s inevitable,” said Caleb Jaffe ’01, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The question is: What form is it going to take, how stringent is it going to be, and who’s it going to affect?” Jaffe was one of three panelists discussing “The Importance of Thinking Green: How the Environment Will Impact Your Career” Feb. 21 at the Law School.

Joining Jaffe in the discussion were Bill Sinclair ’02, attorney for Beveridge & Diamond, a firm specializing in environmental law, and Tanya Cowperthwaite, program manager for corporate responsibility for Sprint/Nextel.

“It’s no longer just about ground, air, and water,” Sinclair explained, “The scope of environmental law is broad, encompassing natural resource issues, pollution, contamination and land-use litigation.” He explained that there’s a growing demand for legal advice on environmental law from clients such as developers, venture capitalists, and even state and local agencies seeking good environmental counsel early in order to avoid future costly litigation.

Cowperthwaite said that Sprint/Nextel, being a national company, deals with federal as well as many varied state laws. “We would lose our ability to sell our service in California, for example, if we didn’t have a cell-phone recycling program,” she noted.

She said that in order to be competitive, Sprint/Nextel has to answer environmental concerns of shareholders and customers alike. “Green investor activism is a really big deal,” she said. Large corporate clients are also paying close attention to her company’s efforts at lowering its own carbon footprint. “We’ve employed over 260 hydrogen power generators at our cell sites…Many others run on solar power during the day,” she said. “We are committing to an aggressive greenhouse reduction program over the next five to 10 years.”

Asked how law students could better position themselves to be competitive in the environmental law firm job market, Jaffe urged students to “show an interest in the field whenever you get an opportunity…If you’re a first-year student, recognize that there are environmental opportunities outside of the traditional places.

“You don’t just have to work for an environmental law firm or an environmental nonprofit, you can work with the Department of Defense doing NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) cases…You can get great environmental experience in sectors of the government where you might not expect to get it.”

Sinclair agreed, adding, from the private practice perspective, “We want to see what kind of classes you’ve taken, what you’ve been involved with in law school—the Environmental Law Journal, for instance. Getting a summer associate’s job in the environmental area, especially as a first-year, is really a valuable thing.

“If you do a little research, a little digging, you can find an interesting summer job in environmental law. There are summer internships in environmental law at many state’s attorney general offices,” he said.

All three agreed that the future for environmental lawyers was solid. The expected wave of new environmental legislation will fuel a demand for additional environmental lawyers from new boutique firms to new legal offices in government agencies.

The panel was sponsored by the Virginia Environmental Law Forum.
• Reported by Ken Reitz