The OPIA Blog

Alumni Spotlight: A Journey to Becoming an Environmental Litigator

If someone had told me at age 24 that I would become a lawyer, I would have told them they were crazy. I had majored in geology as an undergraduate, spent a couple of summers at Woods Hole, and entered a Ph.D. program with the idea of becoming a marine geologist. After deciding that path was not for me, I had an M.S. in geology and no career aspirations. I considered a number of options, ranging from scientific journalism to carpentry. Deep down, though, I was seeking a way to turn my 1960s activist spirit into a job. As a young teenager, I had been angry and passionate about the Vietnam War, civil rights, and what we then called women’s liberation. Environmental issues were never at the top of my list of political concerns, but I was attracted to environmental advocacy because it would allow me to integrate my love of science with political action.

When I started at Harvard Law School in 1980, the environmental offerings were paltry. I almost dropped out after one year, because I couldn’t envision how a law degree could translate into meaningful work. But I was fortunate to connect with the Conservation Law Foundation (a regional environmental advocacy organization headquartered in Boston) as a 2L, and I worked there as an intern over the next two years. The lawyers there were stopping offshore oil leasing, battling pollution, and saving forests, and I was hooked. After law school, I spent one year as a legal fellow for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco and two years as a Massachusetts assistant attorney general in the environmental protection division.

I learned to my surprise that I actually thrived as a litigator, in spite of my initial terror at any type of public speaking. When family life brought me to the New York area, I was lucky to land another position at NRDC as a litigator in its “citizen enforcement project.” That project—which was disbanded in 1994—focused almost exclusively on enforcing Clean Water Act discharge permits. But the cases were more varied than one might expect: one enforcement action against a Texaco oil refinery lasted for 19 years, requiring several trials and appeals to hold the refinery accountable for its pollution. (The moral of that story is that public interest lawyers have to be like pit bulls; once we latch on, you can never shake us off!)

I am now a member of NRDC’s litigation team, a group of about a dozen lawyers, located in four of our offices, who specialize in litigation, rather than a particular substantive area. (Most other NRDC lawyers focus on a discrete set of issues, like energy, oceans, clean air, or endangered species.) Thirty years after becoming a lawyer, I am having the most fun of my career—because of the excellence and camaraderie of my team, the freedom to choose what cases to tackle, and the rewards of mentoring young litigators. I also love seeing a case go from the first development of the legal theory through motions, discovery, trials (occasionally), and appeals. My favorite cases typically involve a big, bad actor (industry or government); an intractable environmental problem; and feisty clients. In the past few years, I have helped to secure a cleanup of chromium from historical industrial operations in a working-class community in New Jersey; to challenge EPA’s registrations of pesticides that pose risks to human and ecological health; and to formulate legal strategies to target mold in New York City public housing. I am particularly drawn to environmental justice litigation and have learned that environmental advocacy is intimately bound up in the political, economic, and social concerns that moved me as a teenager.

My advice for HLS students who are aspiring environmental advocates is to learn to be a great writer, a critical thinker, and a resourceful researcher. Those generic skills—combined with a demonstrated drive to serve the public good—will carry you far. You also have an exciting array of academic and clinical choices, along with a vibrant environmental community, to help you on your path to a rewarding career.

Written by OPIA Summer Fellow Samantha Sokol