Reflections on Becoming an Environmental Lawyer

Posted on September 27, 2019 by Robert Falk

Thirty years ago, I began practicing law and landed in the environmental field mostly by happenstance.  I had previously served as a manager with the federal government in the area of commerce and economic development.  I knew that my ability to tolerate a potential life in the law depended on finding a niche with a lot of interaction between government and businesses. 

Many environmental lawyers chose the profession because they were called to “the cause.”  I have found this to be true even if they ultimately practiced on the business/defense side.  Not so with me.  My field of choice within the law originally had nothing to do with the substance; it was all about the process and, more specifically, the intersections between law and policy, politics and economics, and legislation and adjudication. 

After finding my summer associate experience in traditional litigation and transactional work boring, I searched for a position in a “land use” practice.  I found a firm that had recently put its small land use practice together with a federal and state environmental law practice that it acquired from a local competitor.  I got an interview, tried to impress the attorneys with whom I met, got lucky, and received a job offer.

As I knew literally nothing about environmental law and, out of fear of starting my position with no relevant background, I enrolled in the only potentially relevant course offered in my then final semester at law school.  It was a seminar focused exclusively on the federal Clean Water Act.  It was there, largely at the hand of the late Joe Sax, with whom I argued incessantly about policy and politics while being taught how to read and understand the totality of an environmental statute, that I was first bitten. 

My appetite for this field only increased when I started working with two of the firm’s environmental law partners, Michele Corash and Barry Sandals.  I quickly came to appreciate their skill sets, reputations and prior experience at U.S. EPA and the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. 

Michele and Barry took this unshaped lawyer mound of clay and began to mold me and fill the vessel.  While Sandals schooled me in the worlds of CERCLA and the litigation process, Corash took charge of the more general environmental education mission and opened multiple doors of opportunity.  (Brad Marten came into the mix a few years later as an officially-assigned mentor and proceeded to ply me with food and drink while indoctrinating me in his unique take on the world.)

One of the opportunities Michele gave me in 1991 was to assist her in organizing a conference focused on Asia for the ABA Standing Committee on Environmental Law.  Citing my pre-law experience in putting together such events for the federal government, Michele anointed me the “general manager” of the effort working with the ABA staff.  Environmental law thought leaders from a dozen Asian countries and a healthy gaggle of U.S. environmental lawyers came together for a few delightful days in then British-held Hong Kong where they started a dialogue about the importance of environmental law and enforcement in those emerging economies. 

At this conference, the parties recognized as a matter of stipulation that the United States was the primary inventor of the field of environmental law and its unparalleled leader and innovator.  The American environmental lawyers in attendance acknowledged their collective responsibility to continue to lead in the field.  And so we did, or attempted to do, if not for the love of our profession or country, for the love of our neighbors, our children and our planet.

I eventually became a “real” environmental lawyer thanks to the encouragement of leaders in the profession who taught me that through our work we could improve the planet.  Given how my journey started, I am saddened to see the United States retreat from its leadership position in the field.  But this trend can be reversed.  I look to the next generation of environmental lawyers to lead the way, and I ask my ACOEL fellows to join me in inspiring and mentoring these young lawyers.