Brecken Petty ’23 Blooms in Law School

Virginia Law Women President Pursues Protecting Environment
Brecken Petty

“I was deciding where to go to law school during my internship and the abundance of UVA alums in the section and the mid-Atlantic location of D.C. helped sell me on UVA Law,” Brecken Petty ’23 said. Photo by Julia Davis

June 3, 2022

A lifelong love of gardening and working alongside alumni sowed the seeds for Brecken Petty ’23 to pursue her interest in environmental law at the University of Virginia.

Petty, a native of Overland Park, Kansas, earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Kansas.

At UVA Law, Petty is managing editor of the Virginia Environmental Law Journal and president of Virginia Law Women. She was also a William Minor Lile Moot Court Competition semifinalist and a research assistant for Professor Cale Jaffe ’01, who directs the Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic. With the clinic, she co-authored an amicus brief at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and a report for the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission on how to transition to a zero-carbon economy.

In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Petty discusses her path to law school, her environmental research and her goals for Virginia Law Women.

Tell us something about your life before law school.

I have always had a green thumb. My family had a large garden in the backyard when I was growing up and I would help my dad take care of it. Each summer we would have so many zucchinis, squash and tomatoes that we’d put the produce on a fold-up table in front of the house so neighbors could take some vegetables when they walked by. I took a series of horticulture classes in high school, too. I liked these classes very much because my high school had a greenhouse, and it was always warm and humid, a nice break from biting Kansas winters. For the course, students got to grow plants from seeds and tend to them until they were large enough to sell in a “plant sale” fundraiser at the school. Even now, I have about 11 plants in my home in Charlottesville. It has become somewhat of a running joke among my roommates — it’s getting out of control. But I like the brightness and life they bring into the space. It makes me happy to see when one has a new leaf or bloom.

Why law school?

I had a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, as part of my Spanish minor. I learned a lot about the language and culture by living with a host family. Until my semester in Salamanca, I had only ever lived in Kansas. It wasn’t until I left that I realized how much I treasured these green, open spaces.

I also spent a semester in Washington, D.C., as an intern with the Department of Justice for my political science capstone project. I interned for the DOJ’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, in the Law and Policy Section. I was deciding where to go to law school during my internship and the abundance of UVA alums in the section and the mid-Atlantic location of D.C. helped sell me on UVA Law.

More than just liking the type of work these lawyers did, I liked the type of people they were. They were confident and well-spoken about complex issues and in front of clients. They were kind and patient with me, an undergraduate student who had a thousand questions about everything. They were fierce defenders of their client’s interests. They seemed happy and fulfilled by their work. I chose to go to law school because I wanted a legal education. But I also wanted to embody the qualities I saw in my mentors and the attorneys I worked for.

Tell us more about your interest and studies in environmental law.

Around the time I was preparing to apply for law school, I became increasingly interested in environmental matters and specifically climate change. I thought going to law school would help me develop the skills to meaningfully contribute to the ongoing fight against climate change and environmental harm in the legal sphere.

I am very pleased with the environmental law experiences offered here at UVA Law. Professor [Michael] Livermore’s Environmental Law course provided me with a great background of relevant environmental statutes and how they’re implemented through an economic lens. I wrote a paper for this course about the oil industry’s co-opt of “The Tobacco Playbook” — the strategy employed by the tobacco companies to downplay the cancer risks of their product and avoid litigation for decades — to mislead consumers about oil’s contribution to climate change.

On the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, I have enjoyed working on various articles over the past year, with topics ranging from environmental justice considerations to riparian rights. I find my work with VELJ to be fulfilling because I enjoy working with the rest of the team, each of us doing our part to bring together a finished product and to ultimately publish exceptional environmental scholarship. 

What are some of your goals for Virginia Law Women?

First, I want VLW to be a space where members feel connected with one another. Meaningful relationships are fostered through genuine connections on the individual level, but also through community-building as an organization at large. It is my hope that members feel comfortable asking questions, sharing knowledge and celebrating each other’s successes. VLW’s mentorship program, social programming and alumni connections help cultivate this environment. One of my priorities is ensuring that VLW is an inclusive space where all women in the law school can come and feel truly welcomed. I believe prioritizing diversity in the organization’s programming and among its speakers and panelists can help achieve this.

Second, I want VLW to be a valuable professional resource for its members. Events like Women in Big Law, Women in Public Service, Women in Government and the Diversity in Clerkships Panel are cornerstones of this mission. It is my goal to help members take advantage of the organization’s alumni connections and institutional knowledge so they can capitalize on professional opportunities. Ideally, members will feel like they can turn to the organization with questions about [On-Grounds Interviews], journal tryouts, clinics, interviews or career decisions, and know they will receive a thorough answer and plenty of encouragement!

What’s next for you?

After graduating, I plan to clerk for Judge Daniel D. Crabtree on the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. I am looking forward to being back home in Kansas for a year and getting to spend some extra time with my family. Following my clerkship, I’d like to have a litigation or possibly bankruptcy practice at a firm.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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