From Student to Lawyer: My Time in the Environmental Law & Policy Clinic

The Latest from HLS Clinical Programs 2019-06-13

By: Heather Romero, J.D. ’19

Heather Romero ’19

Looking back at the many opportunities afforded to me as a student at Harvard Law School, the one that was undeniably the most rewarding and impactful to my understanding of how to practice law was participating in the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. Coming to law school, I knew that I was interested in environmental law but did not have a strong idea of what my area of focus could be. The Clinic gave me the space to explore different areas of environmental law and develop a set of skills that I can apply to the practice of law in any setting.

I was nervous when I first enrolled in the Clinic. I did not have an academic or professional background in environmental science and in many ways felt like an imposter among my classmates who had dedicated years of study and work to environmental issues. However, my apprehension was unnecessary. The faculty in the Clinic were, and continue to be, incredibly supportive and worked with me to leverage the skill-set I brought with me and build the skills I needed not only to be an effective environmental lawyer, but a strong advocate for my clients in general.

During my first semester in the clinic, I had the opportunity to work on an amicus brief written on behalf of farmers injured by the pesticide dicamba, which was eventually filed in the Ninth Circuit. Though working on the brief taught me much about legal writing, what was most impactful to me was being able to use my legal education to represent the interests of people who suffered real harm. I was also able to explore the ways just one pesticide can have long-lasting, wide-ranging effects. My research on this brief was my first exposure to the effects of modern agricultural practices on wildlife. Though a minor point in the brief, that research motivated me to explore the issue more in depth through two other course papers outside the clinic.

Additionally, one of the experiences in the Clinic I have found most valuable is the opportunity to work on interdisciplinary teams. After my first semester in the Clinic, I enrolled in Professor Jacobs’ Climate Solution Living Lab. The Lab consists of several teams comprised of diverse sets of students: my team included six students from five different Harvard graduate schools and MIT. My team’s assignment was to develop a project to mitigate climate change in the agriculture sector via a behavior change strategy. The Lab was the most challenging class I took at HLS. However, it also taught me the most about how a lawyer can add value beyond just being an advisor on the law—lawyers can offer critical insight on strategy, help manage disparate groups of experts, and ground a project in a way that specifically focuses on the client. My team was able to develop a project that would transition conventional farmland to alley cropping, a practice that can sequester carbon from the atmosphere while providing concrete financial benefits and increased climate resiliency to participating farmers.

Group photo of Heather's Living Lab Team

Group photo of Heather’s Living Lab Team

My experience in the Lab brought me back to the Clinic for both semesters of my 3L year. For my last semester, I am again participating in an interdisciplinary team in which I am the only law student. My team is advising a group of Florida municipalities on formalizing a partnership to develop climate change adaptation strategies. This experience has allowed me to practice the skills I developed in the Lab and build on them even more. I’ve also worked much more closely with our clients than in previous projects, giving me the opportunity to gain experience in working directly with clients. I even will be able to travel to attend our clients’ final stakeholder meeting  of the semester and share our research and advice in person.

Participating in the Environmental Law Clinic has given me my most valuable experiences in law school. No other class has taught me as much about how to be a lawyer in the real world. I feel confident that I am prepared to start my legal career because of the skills I learned in the Clinic and am excited to continue working on issues of climate change mitigation and adaptation.