Legal playing field may level out

News
Jul 6, 2012

When anti-grazing groups need legal help, many of them dip into the well-established system of nonprofit environmental legal centers and law school clinical programs to get pro bono legal representation. Organizations like Western Watersheds Project, Oregon Natural Desert Association, and Center for Biological Diversity are routinely able to obtain free legal services, while ranchers often find themselves on the brink of insolvency after an extended legal battle. Indeed, for many in the natural resources industries, access to free or affordable legal services arguably represents one of the greatest advantages environmental groups have in the pitched battle over public lands management.

But the playing field may have recently become just a bit more level. After several decades of offering one of the nation’s top-ranked environmental law programs, Lewis and Clark Law School of Portland, OR, is now also home to the nation’s first clinical legal training program focusing exclusively on natural resource management and development advocacy.

Since its rollout in 2007, the Western Resources Legal Center (WRLC) has been providing law students at Lewis and Clark the opportunity to develop their lawyering skills by working hands-on with actual cases under a supervising attorney. In the program, students are expected to conduct legal research, write and speak like professional advocates, work with clients, negotiate with regulators, and learn the fundamentals of strategic legal thinking and planning, all on behalf of the natural resource industries.

According to Caroline Lobdell, program executive director, staff attorney and professor, WRLC trains students interested in representing ranchers, farmers, timber companies, mining companies and water users with invaluable real-life professional experience, not just theoretical book learning.

But it’s not just the students who benefit. When WRLC takes on a case, the legal services are provided gratis, minus expenses, a major benefit to the ranchers and other resource users who may otherwise be unable to afford legal representation. But from a broader perspective, the industries also stand to benefit from WRLC’s turning out experienced graduates committed to advocating on their behalf.

“They get the students who graduate and want to defend them,” observed Lobdell. “These students that come out and work on these ranching cases have chosen careers in that specifically.”

Who in industry is benefiting from WRLC’s legal expertise? In ranching, it’s a broad spectrum. Everyone from individual ranchers facing legal challenges to state cattlemen’s associations (WRLC is currently helping the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Association with an Endangered Species Act suit) to national organizations, like the Public Lands Council, have been represented by Lobdell and her team of budding advocates.

“We don’t have a [geographical] limitation on where the cases come from,” says WRLC board member Elizabeth Howard, who is also a Lewis and Clark alumna and a partner at the Dunn Carney law firm in Portland. Howard observed that prospective cases for the clinic are chosen based on whether they address natural resource issues and provide a good learning opportunity for students.

Howard also pointed out that the program aims to assist parties who are less able to bankroll costly legal services.

“WRLC has really been more about serving the little guy: the family farms and ranches and businesses that are involved in the natural resource industry,” said Howard. Asked about whether WRLC provides its services to large natural resource corporations, Howard replied, “Frankly, for the most part, those large corporate clients can afford their own lawyers. It’s the small guys who can’t. They are the folks who we are providing this service to.”

According to Howard, the program is continually in search of new cases for teaching its students. Proposals from natural resource users are solicited on the WRLC website (www.wrlegal.org) where an application is provided. The center can also be contacted by phone.

“We hope that folks are calling and letting us know about their cases because we’re always looking for more cases to work on,” said Howard.

The success of WRLC in its five short years makes a stark contrast with the resistance met with by the program’s founders. Lewis and Clark Law School has a long and proud history of environmental advocacy and is home to PEAC, the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, a similar clinical legal program focusing on environmental causes. For some faculty and students, the addition of a natural resources program was an unwelcome addition to the law school’s environmental offerings, and the reception of WRLC was consequently chilly.

“At first we had a lot of resistance,” recalled Howard, who was one of the main forces behind WRLC’s creation. “That lasted for a few years, and that was hard.”

Lewis and Clark Law School Dean Emeritus Jim Huffman played a key role in gaining the eventual acceptance of the WRLC program.

In particular, Huffman saw the value of teaching environmental law from different perspectives, which would allow students to represent different constituencies.

“When you’re the dean, you understand the need for some balance in your program,” Huffman pointed out.

He explained that some faculty viewed Lewis and Clark as an “environmentalist” law school, and thought WRLC would compromise that reputation. Huffman thought differently.

“My view is that no law school should be an ‘environmentalist’ law school,” Huffman said. “You should be teaching environmental law for whoever needs to know it, whether they’re representing business or agriculture or timber people or … the Sierra Club.”

Today, things have changed dramatically.

“Now the college talks a lot about how great the program is, how it’s adding to the diversity of the school,” said Howard. “They tout it as a success and something that they’re proud of.”

In fact, interest in the program has been running high.

Lobdell said that she routinely has to turn students away due to lack of space in her classes. The WRLC board is currently trying to raise $200,000 to expand the program to include another professor and full-time support staff. This, in turn, would mean more students going through the program.

Layson Unger comes from a ranching family in Hawaii and is a recent graduate of the program. She points out that in terms of providing a clinical legal education, natural resource advocacy is historically way behind the curve.

“Environmental activism has been giving law students the opportunity to work on hands-on cases while as a student for the last 30 years,” Unger observes.

In other words, natural resource legal education has a lot of catching up to do. That’s where WRLC comes in.

“WRLC is the only program in the country that allows students to work on actual cases and get practical hands on experience representing natural resource users while a student,” says Unger. “The earlier that natural resource attorneys can start working on real issues and getting practical experience, the better.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent

Get Involved

Given the current economic environment of natural resource based industries, WRLC needs your help now more than ever. You can help WRLC in its mission to help natural resource users while training the extraordinary legal minds of future lawyers, judges, educators and politicians.

Make a financial contribution to WRLC.

Tell a friend about WRLC’s important work.

Send our newsletter far and wide.

Invite WRLC to speak at your meeting.

Welcome a WRLC student to intern with your organization’s legal department.

Tell us about your potential case or legal issue.

5100 SW Macadam Ave, Suite 350 Portland, OR 97239 503-222-0628 www.wrlegal.org.

Executive Director Caroline Lobdell, clobdell@wrlegal.org.

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