St. Thomas University Prepares Lawyers to Take on Environmental Issues

A small but steadily growing legal discipline is training lawyers to defend one of the world’s most underrepresented clients: the environment.

Though several law schools have added legal certificates or joint law degrees with an environmental slant to their curricula in recent years, few offer an actual degree in Environmental Legal studies. One of the most recent universities to incorporate such a degree is St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida.

The St. Thomas Environmental Justice program is unique in many ways. It is accelerated so that students emerge with a bachelor’s degree in environmental justice and a law degree specializing in environmental law in six years, instead of the seven such a program would usually require. More to the point, the curriculum emphasizes a particular perspective of the planet we live on: the idea that humans are stewards of this earth and have both a moral and legal responsibility to protect the rights of nature.

The program emphasizes technical and scientific expertise, as well as legal. Dr. Alfred Light, one of the driving forces behind the program’s creation, said that its development was spurred on by students who expressed the desire for an environmental emphasis in St. Thomas’ legal studies. “Lots of students who wanted to specialize in environmental law didn’t have the background in science or engineering, and lots of others had the science but not the law.” Both are important, he stresses. “We try to give our students a grounding in both, that way when they graduate law school they can get an environmental job right away and have the right training to hit the ground running.”

The right training isn’t easy to come by. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has compiled a list of universities that offer some sort of graduate degree in environmental legal studies. Though not comprehensive, the list is a good cross sample of the state of environmental legal degrees. According to AASHE, approximately fifty schools offer joint degree programs or certificates in environmental law studies, twelve schools offer a Master of Laws degree in Environmental Law specifically, and only one offers a doctorate in the field.

Though environmental law as a discipline has been around for many years, in its early existence it dealt mostly with balancing the land ownership and pollution concerns of the general public with those of private owners or the government.

However, as awareness of the dangers facing the planet from climate change, pollution, and other hazards grows, and the public increasingly remembers spectacular environment disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, the field is expanding. Environmental law students and practicing lawyers are now involved in research, air and water quality control, global climate change management, agriculture, biodiversity, species protection, pesticides and hazardous chemicals, waste management, remediation of contaminated land, smart growth, sustainable development, impact review, and conservation, stewardship and management of public lands and natural resources.

One such student is Brandon Sipherd, a law student at Hofstra University currently employed with the EPA’s air branch in New York. “My division only deals with issues that arise under the Clean Air Act. We deal with preemption and help states fulfill their state implementation plans. So in addition to compliance, I have been able to work on some criminal proceedings where the EPA takes action against air polluters,” says Sipherd.

He is quick to point out the complex nature of environmental law. “Issues surrounding the environment are interdisciplinary and require trained lawyers who understand the nuisances of the varying legal as well as social issues. This is especially true with problem as large as global warming, which affects just about every aspect of daily human life.”

When asked if he believed there is a shortage of lawyers with appropriate and comprehensive education to combat growing threats to the environment, Dr. Light’s answer is emphatic: “Absolutely! Our students are going to go up against the big issues everyone knows about, like global warming, water management and quality, and such, but there are a lot of emerging areas that lack regulation that up and coming lawyers will be dealing with.”

Light continues, “Scientific developments like nanotechnology and genetically modified organisms are rapidly growing and have the potential to drastically change our environment but government regulation on such developments is lagging. We have so much potential for improving human health and environment. I think scientists must have a great time creating and developing these things, but the consequences of these developments need to be looked into as well, which is why these lawyers need the right training so badly.”