January 01, 2014

Building Ecosystems of Legal Diversity

Paula J. Schauwecker

I was drawn to the practice of environmental law for many reasons. I grew up during the dawn of our awareness of the impacts of human actions on the environment. I witnessed such notable events as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Love Canal disaster and the first Earth Day. I watched the news when the Cuyahoga River was on fire and dark smog choked out the skylines of major cities. I also grew up during the debates and passage of the major environmental statutes: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (aka Superfund), the Endangered Species Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, to name a few. Life had a slower pace and the practice of environmental law grew as the complexity of environmental issues became more apparent and as the law cleared a path toward fashioning solutions. Environmental practitioners found their way into law firms and legal departments the same as other types of practice; and some firms that focus solely on environmental law were created. Thus, in revealing my age, I take my place in the generation in which the practice of environmental law began and come to it from that perspective and experience.

The next generation of environmental practitioners, however, will have grown up in a different world; one in which environmental awareness is taught as early as preschool and in which recycling, conservation, and restored waterfronts and industrial sites are commonplace, whereas rivers on fire are not. Life is complex and fast-paced. The next generation is accustomed to corresponding with people and gathering information from across the globe instantly. It has witnessed the most tragic events ever on American soil, the September 11 attacks and the meltdown of our national economy. As the economy struggles to find a “new normal” we are apt to hear more about how much the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) budget is being cut than the progress it has made. Young people today do not expect to work at the same job for a lifetime, and they seek flexibility, self-direction, work-family balance, and meaningfulness in their careers.

How do we engage this generation and chart a successful path for environmental practice? More specifically, how do we get young lawyers to want to practice environmental law? What is the relevance of our practice to the next generation and how do we create the types of firms and companies that this generation will want to work in? How do we show, in real terms, that our profession is relevant to some of the biggest concerns facing the future and that we are building a thriving incubator of thought, innovation, problem-solving skills, and creativity? In my opinion, increasing diversity in the profession is a critical step.


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