There is an interesting debate that has recently begun about renaming the term “environmental law” to something like “resource law” based on the simple fact that there are lawyers out there who practice environmental law that are in no way actively working to protect the environment. There is no such confusion with the attorneys that work for Eartjustice. The whole raison d’etre for this non-profit organization is to work on behalf of the earth for the benefit of ours and future generations. Recently I spoke to Earthjustice associate attorney Neil Gormley about Earthjustice and practicing environmental law in an age where the difference between how the environment is viewed on Capitol Hill and on Main Street are seemingly growing increasingly disconnected.
Earthjustice is a non-profit environmental law organization with roots that go back to 1965 and the Sierra Club’s battle to protect Mineral King, a valley in California’s Sierra Nevada’s mountains from the developers at Walt Disney, who wanted to build a massive ski resort complex with all the negative environmental consequences such a development can cause. While the Walt Disney company actually won the Mineral King case after it wound its way to the Unites States Supreme Court in 1972, an opinion in the majority decision that a private citizen could be irreparably harmed by the development. This was the springboard that the Sierra Club attorneys used to set the precedent that a private citizen could sue a developer for environmental damage, a decision that their follow up court victory confirmed in allowing the public’s right to fight for the environment in court. Formally split off into the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1971, the mission of these attorneys has remained the same:
Since their fiormal founding in 1971, Earthjustice has grown to include 12 regional offices in the United States (with a growing international program as well) with over one million supporters. They use the power of the law to protect people’s health, preserve magnificent places and wildlife, advance clean energy and combat climate change and have represented, without charge to more than 1000 public interest clients. These clients have included community-based organizations, national environmental organizations and public health groups. With an average case load of 300 cases a year, the 93 attorneys of Earthjustice have racked up an impressive 50 plus victories a year and they show no signs of slowing down.
So what is it like being an attorney for Earthjustice? According to associate attorney Neil Gormley of the organization’s Washington DC office, it is incredibly empowering and inspirational. “I am inspired by both the attorneys and students that I work with” explains Gormley. “There is a real divide in how issues are talked about in Washington D.C. and where the impacts of these decisions are actually felt and how they impact regular people. We give these regular people a voice and represent them to the decision makers of government.” While there is a recognized need for environmental protection in Washington, making a case for that need is what Earthjustice is all about and based on their track record, Earthjustice is making a difference.
The strategy that Earthjustice utilizes is very strategic and necessarily so. According to their website:
As expert legal strategists, we take on the big environmental fights—high-stakes cases where we can have an enduring impact—and stick with them until we win. We don’t accept corporate money, so we can fight the most important cases and stick with them for as long as it takes.
High Stakes: Will something significant be lost or gained?
Landmark Impact: Will a positive ruling set a powerful precedent for other cases and help set national policy across the country?
Strong Partnerships: Will the lawsuit help build strong, lasting partnerships with diverse local and/or national groups?
Unique Expertise: Can Earthjustice leverage its expertise and resources to add value to a case in a unique way?
In order to see what kind of attorneys work for Earthjustice, Gormley’s background is instructive. He earned his law degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School and his undergraduate degree, summa cum laude, from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. In between, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador and clerked for the Honorable Marsha S. Berzon of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He has been associate attorney at Earthjustice since 2010, first in Juneau and now in D.C. When I asked him how a legal professional could pursue a career with his organization and what advice he would give to a law student or legal professional interested in environmental law he had this advice: “We are looking for people who have a real passion for the issues we work on and environmental protection and justice issues. If you want to pursue this type of law, get involved with organizations that do this kind of work either formally or informally. Try to get the right skills since it’s hard to start off in this kind of job when you enter the work force. Administrative law experience is a good base – working in an agency context, particularly federal agency determinations will be very helpful in this area of the law.”
When comparing jobs in private sector firms with non-profit organizations like Earthjustice, Gormley cautions that what may be obvious is not always a negative. “It can look bleaker than it really is sometimes because private sector law firms have more resources than progressive public interest organizations” but what they may lack in resources is more than made up for in the incredible passion that attracts lawyers to this kind of work in the first place he explains. This passion though can come at a personal price and managing your private and professional life can be a struggle. “I don’t balance it as well as I should or how other people do but the work aligns well with my ideals and identity. It’s what I want to be doing so it doesn’t feel like I am sacrificing anything. My favourite ways to escape is to explore the natural places I am trying to protect which is incredibly inspiring. There is no strict separation between work and personal life as they are intertwined but I do find that there are times when it is helpful to get away from gadgets.”
For those wanting to get involved with Earthjustice there are a number of ways. There are some fellowship opportunities, summer associate positions and legal internships in addition to the regular attorney staff positions that are available from time to time. Gormley suggests that another way to get involved and build up your environmental law expertise is to volunteer with some of the groups and coalitions that EarthJustice works with, over 1000 at last count.
When I asked him what he felt the roll of the law and lawyers is in society, he answered me with a quiet conviction that really inspired me with hope. “Our laws should be our society at its best. They show what happens when society rises above disagreements and short termism and they are all about what society should be. Lawyers help society live up to those aspirations and goals. We are the ones who hold government and institutions accountable.”
And that in a nutshell is what progressive law is all about.
For more information on Earthjustice please visit their website at http://earthjustice.org/.
Thank you to Neil Gormley for his generous time despite being up late the night before working on filing a legal challenge and to Phillip Ellis, Press Secretary of Earthjustice.
Until next week!