Environmental advocate U-M Law grad aims to make 'positive impact' in field

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

During her undergraduate studies in political science and environmental studies at the University of Michigan, two events in Western Michigan shifted Amanda Urban's focus from public policy to law.

"First, Nestle Company began privatizing Michigan ground water - their pumping had a devastating effect on the wells of citizens in Mecosta County," the Kalamazoo native said. "Second, Enbridge set the world record for the largest inland oil spill when one of its pipes leaked into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River."

The legal aftermath drew Urban towards environmental law.

"The environment affects all people regardless of economic status, religion, race, and nationality - it's a regional, national, and universal issue," Urban said. "Environmental problems transcend time affecting those before me and those who will come after me.

Environmental laws act not only to protect humanity, she said, "but also the plants and animals we share this planet with. I'm excited to practice in a legal field with the potential to have such a broad, positive impact."

Urban's passion for environmental law began with her opposition to the privatization of water and the growing legal doctrines supporting it.

"As my own personal protest against the industry, I've not bought or consumed bottled water in 6 years," she said. "I became interested in water quality regulation and wrote my undergraduate senior research paper on state water impairment reporting under the Clean Water Act."

Remaining a Wolverine for law school, Urban broadened her appreciation for the field by learning about toxic chemical regulation, waste management, air emissions restrictions, endangered species protections, mineral extraction laws, and energy production and distribution systems.

"I'd be happy to practice in any or all of these areas," she said. "Where and with whom I practice is more important to me than the specific area of environmental law. I've been blessed to have already encountered several great mentors and cannot convey how invaluable these relationships are to me."

A December graduate, Urban spent a few months working as a contract lawyer for Lennon Miller O'Connor & Bartosiewicz in Kalamazoo, where the majority of the work was trial level insurance defense - drafting research memos, court motions, and briefs and attending depositions and settlement negotiations.

"I learned a lot very quickly about Michigan No-Fault and Workers' Compensation - both super helpful for the bar exam - thanks to the mentorship of several of the partners," she said.

Awarded a U-M Clara Belfield and Henry Bates Overseas Fellowship, Urban recently returned from working at the nonprofit International Institute for Law and the Environment in Madrid, Spain.

"It was an amazing experience," she said. "My favorite assignment was a brief in support of a complaint before the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee regarding Spain's recent Trans-national Energy Plan.

International law has so much to offer environmental attorneys, Urban said, adding that she's "grateful to have experienced the global nature of environmental law early in my career. I hope to continue to incorporate international resources into my practice long-term."

"Aside from work, being in Spain made me appreciate how large and diverse the world truly is," Urban added. "After trying to get by with my rusty Spanish, I will always be quick to help, yet extremely patient with non-native English speakers."

At U-M Law, Urban maintained a strong environmental law curriculum but also branched into areas of law she knew nothing about.

"Thanks to these 'side interests,' I now have a strong appreciation and interest in child advocacy, criminal defense, Native American law, and bankruptcy law," she said.

Urban's volunteer work at Michigan Legal Help, The National Registry of Exonerations and the Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic gave her a new perspective on the justice system and criminal defense.

"During my career I hope to pursue pro-bono opportunities to continue to help criminal defendants with limited resources," she said. "Our system is far from perfect and these individuals often pay the price for that imperfection."

In an internship at the EPA Office of Regional Counsel for Region 2 in New York, Urban worked on the development of a supplemental environmental project as part of a settlement agreement that allowed the entity, which had violated the Clean Water Act, to complete a project beneficial to the environment in exchange for a reduction in its penalty fine.

"I learned early on that environmental law is not always a black and white or bad guys-good guys dynamic, although it can be," she said. "I'm still young and naïve enough in my career to think that industry and environmentalists can achieve both of their goals given the right tools."

An executive board member for the Environmental Law Society (ELS), Urban also served on the Editorial Board for the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law (MJEAL), an experience that improved her writing and gave her life-long friendships.

"We cranked out quality work under pressure, resolved conflicts over content decisions and endured through hours of cite-checking because we supported each other," she said. Her note, tentatively titled "A spectrum of Chevron deference: The definition of ambiguity in broken statutory framework," will be published in MJEAL's next issue.

Urban has high praise for the MLaw environment.

"From the annual culture show to the student-funded fellowship auction, Michigan culture is fun, welcoming, and unique," she said. "Michigan is full of passionate people ready to engage and disagree respectfully over the most controversial legal topics. I will forever 'Go Blue' - although I unfortunately had to move to Spartan-town - Lansing - to begin my clerkship."

Her time as chief justice on the Central Student Judiciary inspired her to pursue a clerkship, and Urban recently started a one-year clerkship with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman, to be followed by a year clerking in Port Huron with U.S. District Court Judge Robert Cleland of the Eastern District of Michigan.

"I'm excited to be clerking for two judges that I highly respect and who practice a judicial philosophy that emulates the separation of powers built into our Constitution," she said.

"People are often confused about how my passion for environmental law exists alongside my loyalty to textualism but, to me, they are completely compatible," Urban said."Learning to properly read statutory text will only help me become a better advocate in environmental law - a legal field largely based on complex statutes."

Urban has become actively involved in the ABA Young Lawyers' Division.

Her article tentatively titled, "State chemical regulation may soon be 'paused'" is slated for publication in the Environment, Energy and Resources Law Committee Summer Newsletter.

Published: Mon, Sep 19, 2016

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