Joe Surkiewicz: Serving the community by serving nonprofits
Posted: 6:00 pm Sun, February 26, 2012
By Joe Surkiewicz
Special to The Daily Record
The Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law serves two purposes. First and foremost, it makes the practice of law real for future lawyers.
But it also provides a valuable - and nearly unique - service to the community: while training future environmental lawyers, the clinic works to improve and enforce environmental laws and regulations at the regional, state, and national level.
"The clinic has a long history, more than 20 years, of working on behalf of clients to preserve and protect the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries," said Jane F. Barrett, the clinic's director. "I walked into this law firm with a client base focused on making sure that environmental laws are enforced. We use all of the legal tools available, including litigation, as part of our client work."
The current caseload includes two Clean Water Act citizens' suits filed in federal court, two cases pending before the Court of Special Appeals, one case pending before the Court of Appeals, and several matters in which the clinic is representing clients challenging renewals of water discharge permits.
By challenging business, industrial and agricultural interests, the clinic often ends up in political crosshairs - like in November, when Gov. Martin O'Malley expressed his displeasure that the clinic is litigating a case brought against Perdue Farms Inc. and one of its local poultry growers.
In a letter to the dean, the governor urged that the clinic stop its involvement in an ongoing lawsuit in federal district court. In her response, Dean Phoebe Haddon wrote that the governor was weighing in on a case that is in active litigation and urged him to "let the judicial process resolve this matter."
Beyond active litigation, the clinic also provides counseling and advice to clients on other issues.
"When talking about enforcement, you have to understand the legislation and regulations," Barrett noted. "Permits are a critical building block for compliance and enforcement. We spend a lot of time reviewing permits - it's the first step. If you look at our docket, you'll see that the casework is wide ranging."
But rather than chase large monetary verdicts, the clinic represents nonprofits in the community. "We do it so that Maryland citizens who support those organizations can have their interests in clean water and clean air protected," she said.
That's because most people, even those squarely in the middle class, can't afford to hire law firms to represent them.
"The organizations we represent operate with limited resources - and without pro bono legal services, they would not be able to file cases or otherwise participate in our legal system, which prevents these citizens from having access to justice," Barrett said.
In addition to representing the 14 local Waterkeeper groups around the state, the clinic also represents local chapters of national organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife, as well as local community associations and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
"But we interact with people on the ground," Barrett emphasized. "The members of these organizations are your neighbors, people concerned about their communities and the quality of their air and water. It's not an issue of us representing non-Maryland residents. Our cases are tied to the interest of Maryland citizens wanting to protect their local watersheds and communities."
One of the clinic's clients is the West/Rhode River Waterkeeper in Anne Arundel County. Robert Gallagher is the group's board president.
"We wanted to strengthen the state's critical area law, which had been ignored and unenforced - and we went to the clinic for advice," Gallagher said. "They had a brilliant idea - do a study of how the law isn't enforced. So a bunch of law students went to 60 jurisdictions and combed through the records and proved our case. The study was critical in getting legislation passed in 2008."
The clinic has helped the group in a variety of other ways, as well.
"They help us with everything lawyers do - dealing with state agencies over the content of regulations, reviewing permits under the Clean Water Act over discharge disputes, and writing a petition to the EPA to withdraw Maryland's authority to issue CWA permits," Gallagher said.
"Every year I'm impressed by these kids," he added. "They do things we can't get paid lawyers to do - and tracking down pro bono attorneys is very difficult."
The clinic has 10 students enrolled for the full academic year. They work about 20 hours a week in the clinic while balancing other courses. While helping the environment, the law students combine practice with theory, Barrett said.
"We have cases in different stages," she said. "There's research, briefing, writing an appeal, long-term litigation, and trying to get records from state and federal agencies using the Freedom of Information Act and Maryland Public Information Act. There's a lot of diversity in what we do.
"So students are focused on issues they'll face whether they end up in private practice, working for the government or for a nonprofit - how to analyze factual issues and the law, draft pleadings and talk to their clients," she said.
When looking at cases, Barrett looks for learning opportunities for her students.
"We not only deal with substantive environmental issues and civil procedure, but also with cutting-edge constitutional law issues, administrative law and professional responsibility issues - all things that add to the learning experience of students," she said. "It helps them become better lawyers."
Joey Tsu-Yi Chen, a 2010 UM Law grad, was at the clinic during his second year of law school. He's currently a litigation associate at Saul Ewing LLP in Baltimore.
"The skills I learned in the clinic have 100 percent transferred over to my practice of law," Chen said. "I use those skills every day, from learning how to manage multiple cases, to managing my time efficiently, and to interacting with clients. Without the clinical experience, I don't think I would have been prepared for the actual practice of law."
Barrett added: "Working with real cases shows students the flow and the rhythm of the practice of law. This is what real life will look like once they graduate."
Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org