April 23, 2019

Perspectives: New Attorney in Environmental Nonprofit Law

Shannon A. Hughes

I describe my time in law school as one bookended by significant political events. The first, the 2008 recession, which caused a great panic in those considering taking out large student loans for the legal profession that was witnessing great unemployment. The second, the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, which caused a great panic among environmentalists, resulting in substantial donations to nonprofit organizations and the subsequent funding of my position in an environmental nonprofit.

Despite the obstacles, I leapt, set on environmental nonprofit law. I followed the unconventional wisdom of Marsha Sinetar, author of Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow. Thanks to my own stubbornness, I refused to listen to the naysayers who described with certainty my future poverty working in environmental law. After networking, clerking in my field, and working in the environmental law clinic at the University of Denver, I received an offer at my dream job, WildEarth Guardians.

To be clear, I am a relatively recent graduate, having graduated with my JD and LLM in environmental law in 2016, and sworn into the Colorado State Bar in 2017. My viewpoint is not one of years of reflection and insight, but rather an exposé from the thick of it. What happened a year ago in my career is still happening; what proficiencies I learned in my current position, I am still determining how to apply.

Finding a job is only half the battle, as any burnt-out, confused, new attorney will tell you. Starting in a nonprofit, I found that my biggest challenges were creating systems for best practices, finding mentorship, and finding my own voice. Below are some key insights and guidance I have from my first year as an environmental nonprofit attorney.

Unlike a large firm, working in nonprofit requires you to rise into a leadership role immediately, because every position requires the wearing of multiple hats. It is imperative, therefore, to gain confidence quickly. For example, during my second week of work, I was on Colorado Public Radio discussing an action my organization was embarking on, which I just barely understood. I had to fake it a little by developing some key phrases with my supervisor and then just running with it. Soon after, my supervisor started to push me to find my own voice. Another example occurred at the end of my first year, where I was lead counsel in an oral argument in front of a state administrative board. Granted, this was not federal court, but I had to trust my instincts and lead us forward in this state administrative process, despite having literally just learned it.

Arm yourself with a hefty toolbox in this confidence and knowledge-building phase: Consider joining Toastmaters to work on speaking skills, read articles in your subject, listen to podcasts about professionalism (or in my case, energy grids!), find a mentor in your field (your local bar association may assist with this), take meetings with more seasoned attorneys, pick up the phone and ask the stupid question. In a smaller organization, you will not receive projects on your desk, rather you will have to create them!

The structure of law requires controlled study, and I have found that choosing one subject to master will help channel the flow and lessen the “drinking from the firehose” feeling. For instance, a narrow focus on water, air, or land-use laws and strategies will direct your energy. Accept this niche––it is easier to learn a narrow body of law deeply than to know everything shallowly. While learning this narrow body of law, your value to your organization or clients will depend on the knowledge, contacts, and emotional intelligence (“people skills”) you bring. In the meantime, while you are in the deep end of learning, do not be unnerved; people drown because they panic, not because they cannot swim.

Environmental law is difficult but rewarding work. Finding the right tools to challenge government projects that destroy wild places and getting frustrated at how our laws allow this destruction is all part of the environmental lawyer’s practice, day to day. For new attorneys, gaining confidence is the foundation from which you will build your career, pursue your passion, and show all those naysayers what’s what.


Shannon A. Hughes

Ms. Hughes is an environmental attorney in Denver, Colorado, and may be reached at shannon.a.hughes@gmail.com.