The Leading Edge

Vol. 27 No. 2

Laurie Ristino is a senior counsel with the USDA in Washington, D.C., and a Professorial Lecturer of Law at the George Washington University Law School. She is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. The views expressed here are solely her own.

Over the past year, The New York Times has published articles critical of legal education, attacking the cost, pedagogy, and the practicality of a JD. Here’s a sample:

While most of law schools’ professoriate still happily dwell in the uppermost floors of the ivory tower, the view from the ground for new graduates is growing uglier. It’s not just that the market is now awash with castoffs from Big Law, and that clients can now retain graduates from elite schools and pay them $25 or $50 an hour, on contract. The nature of legal work itself is evolving, and the days when corporations buy billable hours, instead of results, are numbered.

David Segal, What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering, N.Y. Times (Nov. 11, 2011).

Ouch. I think it is fair to say that these articles generated quite a bit of discussion within the Academy, with reactions ranging from agreement to recriminations that singling out law from American higher education for criticism is unfair.

Wherever one lands on the-value-of-legal-education debate, however, it’s an important discussion to have. Why? Because we should care about the health of the profession and developing the next generation of environmental attorneys. It’s a valuable exercise to take stock and see how we can do better.

The continued development of law in service to society to solve environmental problems requires talented lawyers. I also believe that legal education has value beyond what is traditionally considered environmental legal practice. For example, in my experience as a government attorney advising natural resources agencies, public administrators with JDs tend to be highly valued and successful because they possess critical thinking skills, the ability to synthesize volumes of information, and good writing skills. I think we have undersold the value of a JD, its broad application to the job market, and as a foundation for entrepreneurial careers.

But, to be a flexible degree with real world results, changes in legal education are needed. In fact, changes are being made by some law schools. In an article entitled The New JD, The Stanford Lawyer, an alumni magazine, describes Stanford’s multiyear process to overhaul its legal education to better prepare its students for a challenging job market and for careers beyond law. (Joan O’C. Hamilton, The New JD, Stan. Law. (June 11, 2012). Some of these changes include interdisciplinary programs, real problem solving, and full-time clinics. These types of law school reforms, which create needed value for today’s law students, require a shift in emphasis to embrace experiential learning, new fora for learning, greater appreciation for the value of practitioners, and a deep acknowledgement of the complexity of the world’s problems to which traditional legal education may be ill-suited.

The reality is that the new environmental lawyer may not be a lawyer at all. She may be the director of a land trust, the founder of an energy consultancy, or the administrator of a resource agency like so many JDs before her.

In the final analysis, the journey to law school and beyond is a worthwhile one. And, it is up to us to make it so.


  • About NR&E

  • Additional Resources

  • Contact Us

Stay Connected


Book: Ethics and Environmental Practice: A Lawyer's Guide