Not quite lawyers, yet, but playing the role. That’s the idea behind the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. And, they’re not just acting the part. Students work on real environmental issues for real clients—community groups, advocacy organizations, concerned citizens—who need help advocating before a judge or regulator.
“The law clinic is an opportunity for students to get practical experience working with clients on significant environmental problems,” says Associate Clinical Professor of Law Mark Templeton, the clinic’s director.
The goal, according to Templeton, is to provide law students with the opportunities and the skills to make them effective lawyers.
Second year law student Christina McClintock says the clinic has indeed prepared her well for the “real world.”
“I think the clinic is the best opportunity you have in law school to really take on leadership roles in cases, learn new skills, and learn how to build relationships with the client,” McClintock says.
Plus, they get to make a positive difference in the process, says third year law student Justin Avellar, who calls the clinic one of the most rewarding experiences he’s had at law school.
“It feels really good knowing that I’m getting practical skills and that the things I’m doing are making a difference,” Avellar says.
Templeton started the clinic about five years ago, thanks to support from philanthropists Jim (Law, ’87) and Wendy Abrams. Since then, it has grown from having four students to sixteen involved at any one time, and often even more want to be involved. For the past several years, an experienced environmental lawyer has assisted Templeton as a clinical fellow, expanding the clinic’s teaching and advocacy capacity.
The students’ enthusiasm and dedication is evident by the length of their involvement. Most participate for four or five quarters spanning their second and third years. This allows them to see how a case evolves and to think through—and see through—a variety of strategies. They also learn to manage the flow of work and client relationships—providing valuable project and team management experiences for their future careers.
“What I really want them to feel is empowered that they know how the system works, and that they have the keys to the system,” says Templeton, adding that he wants students to gain a strategic sense for how to be most successful in advocating for change whether inside or outside of the courtroom or the halls of the legislature or government agencies.
Some of this Templeton is able to teach in the classroom. The clinic meets weekly for a two-hour class in which they learn the nuts and bolts of advocacy and litigation, key environmental laws and concepts, and practical skills such as how to argue in front of a judge.
They also learn from one another, says McClintock.
“When you’re in the clinic, you get to hear all the other amazing ideas that people have,” McClintock says, noting that sometimes they’re really creative solutions she might never have thought about. “It’s just been really valuable getting to work with people and learn from people in a setting that’s very different from a classroom.”
Assigned to teams of two to five people, depending on the needs of the client, new students learn from those who have been on their team for several quarters. By the time the older students leave the team, the newer ones are up to speed and are then in a position to teach a fresh batch of newcomers. Weekly team meetings and daily, ongoing interactions between faculty and individual students facilitate this learning.
Because of the stability in the student pool and dedication of the students, the clinic is able to take on bigger, more complicated cases. Indeed, Templeton says, the biggest challenge is deciding which cases to turn down.
“Because we offer our service pro bono, meaning for free, because we have a wide range of interests, because the students are excellent, because we’re at the University of Chicago with great resources here in terms of other experts, we’ve got more projects that come to us than we can possibly accept at any time,” says Templeton.
So how do they decide which cases to take on?
“We look for cases where we think we can have a significant impact on the environment, where there are good learning opportunities for students, where the clients are really committed to the project and have a real need, and where we think the University of Chicago can bring something to bear,” Templeton says.
The clinic organizes its work around three subject matters: water, climate and energy, and land contamination. What the work entails from there is largely determined on a case-by-case basis. The students start by looking at a set of facts and determining if there is a legal case. Part of that means deeply investigating the problem. Students might visit a site to determine how big the problem is and how contamination could occur. They also talk with those who are affected by the problem to learn their concerns and goals.
They then need to convince a judge or regulator that something can and should be done. So, for a Clean Water Act case, for example, students would have to understand how the Act works. Second year law student McClintock spent her first summer working for the clinic learning the ins and outs of the Act so she could understand how to help her clients. She calls her experience a “mental boot camp.”
She learned that if a company is going to be discharging into a waterway, the company needs a permit, and the permit specifies the terms of what the company is allowed to put into the water. Students compare the permit terms to what is actually being discharged and reported to see if there’s a violation of the permit.
For example, one case the students are working on involves a chemical manufacturing facility in Illinois that has consistently discharged chemicals into the Illinois River above its permitted limits. Before they file a suit against the company, the students first need to send a 60-day notice of intent to sue, showing they believe there is a problem. Sometimes state regulators will try to resolve the matter with the company before the lawsuit is filed. In that case, the clinic could intervene if its clients felt the settlement wasn’t strong enough.
If the lawsuit does get filed, students would file papers with a court and argue the case before a judge. The students will be doing exactly that this quarter for a case in which a tar sands oil refinery in Illinois discharged too much mercury into the Mississippi River.
If there isn’t a strong legal case under existing law or regulations, then there are other actions the students could take to improve the law. They might put together a fact sheet, meet with regulators, or work with the affected parties to get the issue out into the media.
In one case, they are working with a group of women who row on Bubbly Creek, a long-contaminated river on the south side of Chicago. The students are filing a formal petition to trigger a formal state review of the water quality standards. If the Clinic’s petition is successful, the water quality requirements should be strengthened to better protect the women, who are breast cancer survivors.
“[The students] are all just so impressive,” says Jenn Junk, executive director of Recovery on Water (ROW). “I’m just blown away at the amount of professionalism and true passion they have for these issues. It’s really inspiring and we’re just really thankful.”
For another case, the students are working with residents in East Chicago, Indiana, were there are concerns about lead in the soil and drinking water. Working with coalition partners, the students have been advocating for greater state financial assistance to the community to help pay for new drinking water pipes that will reduce the risks of contamination.
“Seeing that a city is going to work to replace its lead pipes because of work you’ve found or helped push because of all the research you’ve done is really rewarding,” says third year student Avellar.
The work of the clinic isn’t just local. One of the projects Templeton is most proud of is the Clinic’s work that drew a spotlight on Shell’s drilling in the Arctic Ocean. In collaboration with the ocean advocacy group Oceana, he and his students argued Shell wasn’t being sufficiently forthcoming with investors about the financial risks and challenges the company faced by drilling in the remote terrain. The students filed a petition with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and secured significant media coverage. In the end, Shell did reversed its plans.
“Ultimately, there were a lot of factors that contributed, but I like to think we had some impact in drawing attention to this work,” Templeton says.
The clinic also dives deep into policy issues. For this, and so much of their work, they draw on Templeton’s expertise as a former regulator. As the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources—which included Missouri’s environmental protection efforts and energy policy office, among others—Templeton often had people coming to him with great ideas but no time to determine how best to implement them.
“There are a lot of great ideas out there, but how do you translate them into practice and make it easy for lawmakers or regulators who already have too much on their plates to actually advance this agenda?”
The students move the needle forward by providing the information and concrete language that regulators need to advance an agenda or specific proposal. For example, the students have worked with regulators in Illinois to think through the different ways the state could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
They’ve also written a 70-page report on access to energy data. The report, like others on the topic, encourages the release of smart meter data to third-party companies that can use the data to identify opportunities for energy efficiency and gives an overview of utilities’ privacy and liability concerns. But, what sets this report apart is that the students include exact language that could be used to change regulations.
“Lawyers in training, training by drafting laws,” Templeton says. “This is the clinic at its finest: harnessing and honing the legal skills, energy and intellect of its students to facilitate positive environmental outcomes. I think this is part of our unique value add and something that I draw on from my experience as a regulator.”
While Templeton’s experience and knowledge of the issues provides the foundation and guiding hand the students need, he would argue that the clinic’s success is due to the students. Templeton can think of several instances where a student encouraged the group to dive deeper into an issue.
“They ended up persuading me and ultimately ended up persuading opposing council in one case, which led the other side to agree to settle the case, and another time persuaded the judge as to why we were right.”
Ultimately, he says, “the students bring new perspectives and enthusiasm and a real desire to learn. This has a great positive impact on our clients and ultimately public health and the environment.”