Tips for Finding a Job in Natural Resources or Environmental Law

At the PDO panel last week on “Careers in Environmental Law”, panelist Pat Shea identified water rights as an area that is likely to see a rapid growth in upcoming years.  Mr. Shea, currently in private practice, served a stint as the director of the Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton and is a former partner in the firm Van Cott Bagley Cornwall & McCarthy.  He answered the question, “How can I break into the area of water law?”with the following career advice, which can be applied to many areas of public interest law.  Comments from the other panelists (John Steiger with the U.S. Department of the Interior and Jim Allen with Snell & Wilmer) are incorporated into this article as well.

1.  Find a mentor.  Mr. Shea recounted how a former partner at Van Cott influenced his career and served as a mentor.  He suggested that students identify attorneys working in the field and seek networking opportunities with them.  One way to meet environmental attorneys would be to join the Energy, Natural Resources and Environmental Law (“ENREL”) Section of the Utah State Bar as a student member and attend their events.

2.  Get a job at a firm.  As a summer or junior associate, initially you may not be assigned to the area that you are most interested in working.  However, you will gain valuable skills and make contacts that you will be able to use later in additional areas.  Mr. Shea emphasized the importance of negotiation and conflict resolution skills.  He noted that litigators acquire many skills in the course of their work that attorneys in government jobs may not have developed.

3.  Join a water advocacy group.  Students can volunteer to work with a staff attorney, where they will learn more about the area of law and make valuable contacts.

4.  Get a job at a government agency.  Many state and federal agencies employ attorneys who work in environmental law.  Examples include the Environment and Natural Resources Divisions of the Utah Attorney General’s Office, individual state Departments of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Bureau of Reclamation.  The Department of Justice Attorney General’s Honors Programs was also mentioned as a fantastic entry level opportunity.  The consensus of our panelists was:  “Throw as many darts as you can and be willing to move.  There’s a lot more flexibility once you’re in the door.”

5.  Work in Congress.  Working for a congressman allows for good mentoring on the political side.  Mr. Shea said that he has served on two investigative committees, and both were valuable experiences.

6.  Take a water course and/or write a comment for a journal on water law.  Mr. Steiger said he hired a candidate because her résumé reflected her dedication to environmental law, including a reference to a journal comment she had written on a relevant topic.  Other classes the panel recommended were Admin Law and Corporations.

7.  Don’t overlook international agencies.  Pat Shea believes the scarcity of water is a global crisis, and third world countries will need help from international non-profit agencies like the Peace Corps to deal with it.