HOW I BECAME AN ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYER

Posted on April 25, 2018 by H. Thomas Wells Jr.

When someone asks what type of law I practice, and the answer is “environmental law”, the next question often is, “How did you become an environmental lawyer?”  My answer to that question is simple: I reported for duty on Tuesday.  The full story is a bit more complicated.

Having gone through undergraduate school at the University of Alabama on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, I had a commitment to serve as an Air Force officer.  Upon graduation from undergraduate school in 1972, I was commissioned as second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. (This was during the Vietnam War. Although my draft number was over 300, I still went through advanced ROTC because of the scholarship).  The Air Force then granted me an educational delay to attend law school.  With the Vietnam War still ongoing, obtaining the educational delay was not guaranteed, but once it was granted, I was off to law school.

If there were any courses at the University of Alabama School of Law in environmental law at that time, I didn’t take them.  The field of environmental law was not on my radar screen at all.  In fact, it was not on many radar screens back then.

The day after my law school graduation ceremony, I received a call from a Colonel who was the Executive Officer for the Air Force General Counsel’s office in the Pentagon.  He asked if I might be interested in coming up to the Pentagon for an interview.  The explained that the Air Force General Counsel’s office had a “Military Honors Program” under which they took two or three recent law school graduates who had an obligation to serve in the Air Force to work in the General Counsel’s office rather than becoming a JAG officer.  Of course, the interview had to be at my own expense.

So I flew to D.C., interviewed, and was selected as one of the three recent law graduates with an obligation to serve in the Air Force on active duty to work in the Air Force General Counsel’s office.  This office was on the civilian side of the Department of the Air Force.  That meant we reported to the civilian General Counsel, rather than to The Judge Advocate General (“TJAG”); The GC, in turn, reported to the Secretary of the Air Force rather than to the Chief of Staff.  As noted, none of us were JAG officers, but were nevertheless promoted to Captain by order of the Secretary of the Air Force.

Upon moving to the D.C. area, I still didn’t know what area of law to which I would be assigned within the General Counsel’s office.  There were three slots: one was Government Procurement law, one was International Law, and the third was Real Estate and Environmental Law.  Without my knowledge, the lawyers in the office had decided the assignments would be based on when we reported for duty.  Since I reported on the day after Columbus Day, a Tuesday in October 1975, I was assigned to be in the Real Estate and Environmental Law section of the office.

Environmental law in 1975 was really just beginning.  We had NEPA, the old Clean Water Act, as amended in 1972 and the old Clean Air Act of 1970, and that was just about it.  RCRA had yet to be enacted; TSCA wasn’t around, and Superfund was nonexistent.  So I became an environmental lawyer with on the job training and by learning the amendments to the relevant Acts as they were enacted.  All in all, things worked out pretty well, and I indeed became an environmental lawyer because I reported for duty on Tuesday.



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