Desiree Goff

Clean Air, Clean Water, and Losing a Trailblazer

In a month filled with fires and hurricanes, and in homage to a pioneering woman lawyer and Supreme Court justice, we are taking a look at what a career in environmental law entails and how Ruth Bader Ginsburg approached her decision making process when confronted with environmental law cases. 

A fighter for equality and for justice, RBG forged the path for countless women lawyers to come behind her. In her years on the bench, many influential cases came before her. Justice Ginsburg’s opinions ranged from regulating greenhouse gas emissions to expressing support for a more expansive definition of jurisdictional waters under the Clean Water Act.* See Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency; EPA v. EME Homer City Generation LP; and Alaska Department of Convervation v. EPA. However, if Justice Ginsburg was not persuaded by legal arguments of an environmental advocate, she had no qualms voting against them either. See American Electric Power v. Connecticut. Justice Ginsburg came to the court without any background in environmental law and no particular affinity for environmental protection. At that time, she had more of a pro-business reputation. Once on the court though she became an important vote in environmental cases. Her vote was not decided by whatever sympathy she privately harbored for the environmental protection policies being promoted. Rather, she used her analytical skills to precisely define the merits of the arguments, and on that, not on policy, decided her vote.**

If you are interested in pursuing a career in environmental law, Claudia Polsky is a great example. As the founding director of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic, she has litigated environmental cases in state and federal court, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Ms. Polsky details the difference between practice as an environmental lawyer and what you learn in law school. Because law schools anticipate that students will disperse geographically after graduation, in law school the focus is frequently on federal statutes such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. However, in practice, most environmental law practice is dealing with the state and local levels of government. In addition, she stresses that the bulk of environmental law work is in advising clients, advising agencies, drafting statutes and regulations and working in transactional work as opposed to litigation. Ms. Polsky advises that law school is sufficient to teach you the nuts and bolts of the law, and pre-law undergraduate courses are a “tremendous waste.” She suggests immersing yourself in the social science and humanities, learn to think conceptually and abstractly, or major in a STEM field and become analytically excellent and quantitatively unafraid. Or do both.*** 

In terms of what types of jobs are available in environmental law, Ms. Polsky advises that job opportunities can vary from public agency jobs to large firm law jobs where you are defending corporations from dumping PCBs for example. More recently, positions as attorney environmental specialists or sustainability lawyer roles have arisen. These positions involve working in house with corporations to handle supply chain issues, source products that are environmentally green, (e.g. don’t have endocrine-disrupting plasticizers or carcinogenic flame retardents) and working to ensure that the company is complying with existing regulations. Many companies are looking to make greener decisions in their production lines and attorneys can work with them to help make this possible when economically feasible. A smaller subset of attorneys might work for environmental non-profits as well.***

Or follow the example of RBG and make your impact on the environment as a justice, using experience-honed analytical skills with rigor and precision to determine the merits of a case.



*King, Pamela. Ruth Bader Ginsburg Leaves a Nuanced Legacy on Environmental Issues. Scientific American. 2020. <>
**Lazarus, Richard. Insight: RBG’s Everlasting Impact on Environmental Jurisprudence. Bloomberg Law. 2020. <>
***Smith, Heather. How to Be an Environmental Lawyer. The Sierra Club. 2017. <>

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