Working to Advance Pro Bono Legal Aid for Environmental Justice | (ACOEL) | American College of Environmental Lawyers

The environmental legal community is experiencing a resurgence in attention to environmental justice. Federal lawyers work on environmental justice as a top priority in regulatory, licensing and funding decisions. State government prosecutors are considering how to implement new environmental justice legislation passed by their state legislatures. Corporate lawyers integrate environmental justice into corporate environmental and social governance strategies. Nonprofit environmental lawyers prioritize advocacy efforts in new areas such as civil rights. Environmental law professors are considering how to incorporate environmental justice into the environmental law curriculum. The resurgence of attention to environmental justice is real, and for good reason: it is deeply needed.

The theme of environmental justice has been around for a very long time. Yet it remains difficult to define and understand because even though environmental lawyers tend to treat environmental justice as one topic, it simply isn’t a topic. The term “environmental” itself involves several topics, including climate change, pollution, fisheries management, parks, sewer backups, indoor mold, traffic, and electricity. The term “justice” itself also involves several topics, including access, affordability, rights, process, transparency, race, income, and history. It will take the entire environmental legal community in this resurgence to build a real bridge between the worlds of “environment” and “justice”.

Fortunately, there are also new opportunities for environmental lawyers interested in environmental justice to take concrete steps in their own learning about environmental justice and to serve in the environmental justice movement. First, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has a new pro bono clearinghouse that provides communities in need of pro bono support an easy way to connect with lawyers willing and able to help. Communities can simply complete an intake form describing their problem or legal situation and ELI will endeavor to put the community in contact with general practitioners or specialist experts. Lawyers can also fill out a form to be matched with a community legal need. If you are an environmental lawyer and would like to work through the ELI Pro Bono Clearinghouse, please visit www.eli.org/probono. Second, the Environmental Protection Network (EPN) connects former EPA volunteers (e.g., former engineers and scientists) with private pro bono firms and retired attorneys looking to s dealing with a pro bono matter. EPN strives to help these pro bono lawyers become much more quickly aware of the complex environmental issues that may be present in a pro bono environmental justice case. To date, EPN has assisted over 130 communities and currently has over 60 active requests for assistance. If you are an environmental attorney interested in working with EPA alumni to support an environmental justice community, please contact [email protected]

Taking on a pro bono case focused on environmental justice is daunting but also incredibly rewarding. The job provides opportunities to connect with new people in new situations. The work provides experience in interesting areas of environmental law that may not always fall within traditional environmental legal practice. The work capitalizes on basic skills that all lawyers have but are not always able to use, such as listening and empathy. The work involves a wide range of legal practice areas ranging from administrative litigation to political work to contract drafting. There is something for all environmental lawyers in the current resurgence of environmental justice in which we find ourselves. And there is more than enough work for everyone.

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