By Steve Thorpe
Three Wayne State University Law School students in the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic have received internships this summer where they will use the experience they've obtained in the classroom and the clinic. Robert Johns will be working with the Michigan Attorney General's Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Division in Lansing. Katie Okonowski has an internship with Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) legal department in Region 4, which encompasses the entire southeastern U.S., including the Virgin Islands. Nick Ranke will intern with the legal staff at the MDEQ, in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources, the Attorney General's Office, Administrative Law Judges and the Department of Agriculture. Professor Nick Schroeck is director of the clinic.
Thorpe: What are the origins of the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic?
Schroeck: A lot of the work in environmental law is international in nature. Certainly pollution doesn't respect borders and boundaries. And many of the other problems we face are global. We started the environmental law clinic at Wayne State three years ago. At that time, when we examined Great Lakes issues and energy policy here in Michigan, we realized that Ontario and the rest of Canada play a key role. So much of Great Lakes policy -- invasive species, storm water runoff and all the rest -- is international because the lakes border both countries. We already had an existing relationship with the University of Windsor Law School and we broached the idea of partnering on a clinic. We wanted students to gain the experience of working on environmental law and policy in both countries. The goal was for Wayne State students to get some exposure to the Canadian legal system and to Canada's environmental laws and regulations and vice versa for the Canadian students. That's how it all started.
Thorpe: You've built some relationships with government agencies like the EPA and the DEQ and that's reflected in the internships. Tell us about building those relationships.
Schroeck: What we've tried to do -- and this is through the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, as well -- is submit a lot of comments on permit applications and proposed rule making. We try to be the public's voice in instances where there might not be an organized group that's paying attention or is effectively engaged. Through that work we have built some relationships with agency staff. Our public comment work includes local Detroit issues like air quality and also engagement at the state level. The other piece is through litigation, which is about a third of our work. We've been able to work with the state on a lot of cases like Asian carp, where we've filed amicus briefs. We've gotten to know the assistant attorneys general who work on environmental cases. Sometimes we're not on the same side, but through those working relationships, they've been able to see the quality of the work our students do. And all of these interactions are similar with the EPA and other federal agencies as well.
Thorpe: These students in the clinic are clearly preparing for life after law school. What sorts of jobs might they be seeking?
Schroeck: The students in the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic are kind of self-selecting in that they would like to go into the environmental field. But the practical skills the students learn in the clinic can be applied to any area of legal practice. It prepares them for work in a private practice firm in their environmental practice group. So if they get a job at Miller Canfield, for example, in their environmental practice group, they'd be able to hit the ground running. The research and writing our students do is especially applicable to that area of practice. State agencies like the DEQ and DNR or the Attorney General's Natural Resource Division would also be possibilities. There are a variety of careers where employers want someone with a solid understanding of environmental policy and environmental law. At the federal level, our students would fit in with the EPA, in both legal and policy-based positions. The Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Transportation and all of the other federal agencies where they conduct environmental reviews would also make sense for our graduates. And, finally, the whole non-profit arena, whether being a litigator or policy expert working for the Sierra Club or the Natural Resource Defense Council, offers opportunities for clinic alumni.
Thorpe: One hundred years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt was trying to wake up America about protecting its natural wonders, there wasn't a field called environmental law. Now it's an important part of the legal profession. Will it continue to grow?
Schroeck: I definitely think so. "Environmental law" as we commonly refer to the field today, has really only existed since the 1970s. There were certainly attorneys working on environmental issues back in Roosevelt's day, but they probably based that work on property law and common law nuisance claims. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act -- those all came along in the early 1970s. By signing legislation, or major amendments to existing legislation, into law President Nixon created a whole new area for attorneys to figure out 'What do all these federal laws mean?' and 'How are our clients going to comply with these laws?' On the other side, you had a generation of advocates who wanted to make sure the laws were fully implemented. Imagine if Congress ever gets around to passing comprehensive energy legislation including something on greenhouse gas emissions, that would be a huge amount of law that would need to be written and subsequent litigation. We're seeing a lot more state level work, as well, like with renewable energy. You can't just put a wind turbine anywhere you want to. There's a whole host of zoning and land use regulations that come into play. Finally, there are a lot of environmental attorneys who came out of law school in the 1970s. At some point soon, a lot of those folks will be retiring, if they haven't already. The next generation of attorneys has to be ready.
Published: Thu, May 31, 2012