Posted on May 9, 2022 by Seema Kakade
The environmental legal community is experiencing a resurgence in attention to environmental justice. Federal government attorneys are working on environmental justice as a top priority in regulatory, permitting, and funding decisions. State government attorneys are thinking about how to implement new environmental justice legislation passed by their state legislatures. Corporate counsel are integrating environmental justice into corporate environmental and social governance strategies. Non-profit environmental lawyers are prioritizing advocacy efforts in new areas like civil rights. Environmental law professors are thinking about how to incorporate environmental justice into environmental law curriculum. The resurgence in attention to environmental justice is real, and with good reason—it is deeply necessary.
The topic of environmental justice has been around for a very long time. Yet, it remains difficult to define and understand because even though environmental lawyers tend to treat environmental justice as one topic, it is simply not one topic. The term “environmental” by itself involves multiple topics including climate change, pollution, fisheries management, park space, sewage backups, indoor mold, traffic, and electricity. The term “justice” by itself also involves multiple topics including access, affordability, rights, process, transparency, race, income, and history. It will take the entire environmental legal community in this resurgence to truly bridge the worlds of “environmental” and “justice.”
Luckily, there are also new opportunities for environmental lawyers interested in environmental justice to take real action towards their own learning on environmental justice and to serve in the environmental justice movement. First, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has a new pro bono clearinghouse that provides an easy way for communities that need pro bono support to connect with lawyers willing and able to help. Communities can simply fill out an intake form describing their legal issue or situation and ELI will work to connect the community with general practitioners or specialized experts. Lawyers can similarly fill out a form to be matched to a community legal need. If you are an environmental lawyer interested in working through the ELI Pro Bono Clearinghouse, please go to www.eli.org/probono. Second, the Environmental Protection Network (EPN) connects EPA alumni volunteers (e.g. former engineers and scientists) with pro bono private practice and retired attorneys looking to take on a pro bono matter. EPN works to help these pro bono lawyers get up to speed much more quickly on complex environmental issues that may be present in an environmental justice pro bono case. To date, EPN has assisted over 130 communities and currently has over 60 active requests for assistance. If you are an environmental lawyer interested in working with EPA alumni in supporting an environmental justice community, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taking on a pro bono matter that is focused on environmental justice is daunting but also unbelievably rewarding. The work brings opportunities to connect with new people in new situations. The work allows for experience in interesting fields of environmental law that are not always within the scope of traditional environmental legal practice. The work capitalizes on basic skills that all lawyers have but are not always able to use, like listening and empathy. The work involves a wide range of legal practice areas from administrative litigation to policy work to contract drafting. There is something for all environmental lawyers in the current environmental justice resurgence we find ourselves in. And there is more than enough work to go around.