Environmental Law Clinics Not Only Persevere But Flourish in 2020

Posted on February 3, 2021 by Seema Kakade

As 2020 came to a close, more than forty Directors of environmental law clinics, from law schools across the country, came together to reflect and share with each other.   The environmental law clinic directors meeting has become an annual gathering since 2017.   Yet, what was so striking about the meeting in December 2020, was the clear role that clinics have played in environmental law and policy during times of a global pandemic, political upheaval, and widespread concern over racial justice. 

In general, environmental law clinics take on pro bono legal and policy matters with law students as the primary staff.  Thus, the goals of most environmental law clinics are two-fold.  First, to provide pro bono legal services, typically for non-profit organizations and community groups.  Second, to teach law students how to practice environmental law.  The success of the clinics in these two goals, particularly in 2020, is frankly, astounding.

It was clear from the 2020 Directors meeting that the clinics are working in a variety of environmental law spaces.  Clinics are working in traditional environmental law areas like water and air permitting, public lands protection, zoning, and environmental impact statements.  A growing number of clinics are also focusing efforts on new areas of environmental law, particularly in the area of environmental justice on topics like energy justice, food access, and cultural competency.  Further, there is a growing diversity in the kinds of clients the clinics are supporting from advocacy groups to homeowners associations to individuals.   Many clinics too are working directly with minority populations, particularly African-American communities, and Native-American communities. 

It was also clear from the 2020 Directors meeting that the clinics are working in a variety of legal and policy arenas.  Several have active litigation dockets in areas such as zoning, electricity rate cases, and in amicus brief filings.   Several are commenting on environmental impact statements, rulemakings, and permitting.   Several are working on state legislative issues, supporting new bills through white papers and testimony.  Almost all clinics are deeply involved in client counseling and community legal education, providing much needed services and connections to real people.  

The 2020 Directors meeting also demonstrated that a growing number of clinics are working together.  Clinics are referring matters and pro bono technical experts to each other.  Clinics working on similar matters are sharing materials, technical knowledge, and lesson plans.  Clinics are taking on the same client together as co-counsel.   The relationship building between clinics has undoubtedly been a significant growth area. 

Moreover, all the work that the clinics were able to accomplish in 2020 happened virtually.  The Clinics were successfully able to provide online education to law students in oral and written advocacy, organization, critical thinking, and complex research.  The Clinics were able to meet with clients, attend hearings, and figure out electronic submittals with local government agencies.   Perhaps most importantly though, the clinics were able to provide a safe space for students to learn, discuss, and feel productive, in a time where many felt out of control and anxious. 

The hope for 2021 is that the Directors can once again meet in person.  The meeting has been hosted in the past by several schools including the University of Maryland, Columbia University, and the law schools in San Francisco (Golden Gate University/Stanford University/UC-Berkeley).   The goal is to meet in 2021 in Detroit, with Detroit Mercy Law as the host.   High on the list of topics for the 2021 Directors meeting is how clinics can support a goal of increasing diversity within the environmental legal profession as a whole.   Regardless of the ability to meet in person, however, it is clear that the Directors annual meeting will continue, as will the amazing environmental legal work of the clinics. 

Seema Kakade is the Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Note: This Blog post is in memory of Wendy Jacobs, the Environmental Law Clinic Director at the Harvard Law School.  Wendy was an active participant in several clinic directors annual meetings.  She will be sorely missed in the clinic community.