Earthrise Law Center: Big Name, Bigger Mission

A new name reflects the environmental law clinic’s broader mission and national environmental impact.

A new name reflects the environmental law clinic’s broader mission and national environmental impact.

The towering smokestack of the Boardman Power Plant, the state’s last coal-fired power plant, pierces the sky of northeastern Oregon. Environmental studies show the Boardman plant, owned by PGE, Oregon’s largest utility, pumps out tons of lung-choking sulfur dioxide and climate-changing carbon dioxide. Research commissioned by groups like the Sierra Club indicates the power plant contaminates groundwater with coal ash waste and fouls views in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, one of the most beautiful river canyons in the nation.

No one, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), had been able to address these problems. That is, until Lewis & Clark Law School’s Earthrise Law Center (formerly called the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center) got involved.

The subsequent litigation—which forces the giant utility to pay millions in legal fees and fines, install sophisticated pollution control equipment to reduce emissions, and close down completely by 2020—was won by two Lewis & Clark attorneys, including a lead attorney, Aubrey Baldwin JD ’05, who had less than a year’s experience when she started on the case, together with one outside attorney and a cadre of Lewis & Clark law students.

Winning against David-versus-Goliath odds isn’t new for the law school’s environmental clinic, which represents nonprofit public interest clients on a pro bono basis. In fact, the American Bar Association calls Earthrise Law Center “one of the winningest” legal clinics in the nation. What is new is the name Earthrise Law Center, which better reflects the clinic’s nationwide cases—and its planetwide impact.

A Seed That Grew

The environmental clinic was established in 1996 by Lewis & Clark law professors Dan Rohlf and Craig Johnston JD ’85 to provide the school’s law students with practical experience on complex cases that are often litigated for years. “Previously, clinics were mostly low-income or public interest clinics that involved relatively simple cases with quick turnaround times,” explains Johnston, Earthrise Law Center’s clinical director. “The legal issues were simple and often students, with the help of a mentor, could handle a case by themselves. We wanted to give our students the ability to work as part of a legal team on complex environmental cases where they’d face experienced lawyers and deal with complicated issues with huge stakes.”

Back then, the clinic was called the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center (PEAC), which represented its location in the Pacific Northwest, its environmental emphasis, and its advocacy work. “The acronym, PEAC, with Mount Hood in the background in the logo, was nice because it had so many hidden meanings—climbing mountains, scaling obstacles,” says Janice Weis, associate dean and director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program, who helped write the original proposal that formalized the clinic. “It started small and then it grew and grew. We started winning these big cases and developing a wider practice that included natural resources, pollution, and wildlife and regulatory issues. We hired staff with expertise in those specialized areas. Over time, the clinic has become one of the most recognized and successful legal clinics in the country.”

The clinic started litigating cases around the nation—water quality in California, condors in Arizona, waste issues in Hawai‘i, forest management in Tennessee. As Lewis & Clark students graduated and went to work for nonprofits and other public interest entities across the country, they worked with the clinic’s attorneys and Lewis & Clark law students on environmental cases in other states. The clinic was weaving an interconnected web of environmental attorneys that spanned the nation.

However, it was the Boston satellite clinic opened by Kevin Cassidy JD ’02 that became the tipping point for the name change. “With the addition of our Boston attorney, Kevin, suddenly the clinic was no longer our little backyard experiment,” says Weis. “It was time for a name that reflected this major expansion and big thinking that had been going on for five or six years.”

Why Earthrise? It’s the name of the iconic photograph of the earth taken from space in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. It’s been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken,” and some insist it signaled the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States.

“Putting ‘earth’ in your name carries a big responsibility,” says Weis. “Having grown from this small local organization to this national legal entity gives it weight. I literally picture this clinic having to buoy and hold up the earth.”

Weis says the new name encompasses multiple aspects the clinic covers—litigation, advocacy, negotiation. And, if the clinic expands to cases in other countries, the name would still fit.

Earthrise Law Center’s new logo features an inverted triangular A that represents the triangular window of Apollo 8 through which the Earthrise photo was taken. The inverted triangle is also the alchemic symbol for the earth, a fitting image for an environmental law clinic.

Little Clinic, Big Results

The new, big name befits the can-do mentality of Lewis & Clark’s environmental law clinic. Since its modest start 16 years ago, the attorneys and law students working at the clinic have been taking on—and winning—cases that have national and even worldwide impact. And they’ve done so with much less money and far fewer resources than their opponents.

Earthrise Law Center represents nonprofit public interest organizations that typically rely on grants and donations. Since these groups often lack budgets for legal representation, Earthrise provides its services for free (pro bono). The clinic gets some funding from the law school, foundations, and private donors, but the majority of income comes from legal fees paid by opponents in cases they win. Despite an impressive record of successes, Earthrise Law Center doesn’t always win. And, even when it does, cases can take years.

“We’re placing really big bets,” says Johnston. “In some cases, we’ve got a half million dollars or more in fees into a case. We’ve won almost every case we should have won, but you can always get a bad ruling.”

If they lose?

“The clinic has essentially worked for free for years,” deadpans Karen Smith Geon, Earthrise Law Center’s executive director. Smith Geon is the administrator who spends a lot of time raising funds and balancing the budget.

Traditionally, nonprofit public agencies were not only outspent by their legal opponents, they were outgunned by legal teams with more experience and more expertise. “In the past, the big firm lawyers and the governmental lawyers were typically very good and the environmental lawyers were a little bit straggly,” says Johnston, laughing softly. “Not anymore.”

The attorneys and law students at Earthrise may not have as much manpower or money, but their talent and hard work often win the day. “We spend a tremendous amount of time in oral argument, and it shows,” says Johnston. “In court, our public interest environmental lawyers are often better than the government lawyers and the industry lawyers.”

The Earthrise legal teams put in the extra effort. Johnston points to a recent Supreme Court brief Earthrise staff attorney Allison LaPlante JD ’02 worked on with a student—until 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning. “I guarantee that student learned you have to cross every T and make sure everything is perfect.”

Smith Geon says she sees it every day. “These are smart, passionate people who figure out what it’s going to take to win and go after it.”

There are always more environmental cases that need representation than Earthrise attorneys and law students can take on. Johnston says they carefully select cases that have plenty of environmental bang for the buck. “We are interested in developing law,” says Johnston. “Will the case set precedents and be cited by other courts? Will it make a difference for the environment?”

Preparing Students for the Real World

Even more important is the opportunity for student learning. “We’re not just an environmental law firm,” insists Weis. “We are educating students, and we keep that paramount. We ask ourselves, ‘How enriching will this experience be for our students?’”

Law students, usually in their third year, take a weekly two-hour class and then work as full legal partners on Earthrise cases, researching, writing, learning how to think about and frame legal questions. Law student Meredith Price, who graduates in 2013, says writing an amicus curiae (friend-of-the-court) brief for the Supreme Court gave her “one-on-one mentoring and direct feedback on my research and writing style. It made me think about legal questions differently and made me a stronger advocate.”

Maggie Hall, also a third-year student, worked on a water quality case that’s before the Supreme Court. “I loved working on legal issues on this scale. Because the case involves questions about the scope of the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction, it could have tremendous impact.”

Hall says classroom discussions about ongoing Earthrise cases expose students “to a variety of substantive areas of law and give us practical lessons in litigation.”

Ben Luckett JD ’10, a staff attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, worked on the Boardman coal plant case during his tenure with Earthrise. The experience taught him to work collaboratively. “Participating in discussions with five excellent lawyers and a dozen intelligent law students taught me how important being open to new and different perspectives is to problem solving.”

For some, like Tarah Heinzen JD ’09, who works as a staff attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C., the Earthrise experience clarifies career direction. She says she gained “litigation skills and the ability to objectively evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of legal arguments.” Even more important, she says, “It solidified my commitment to citizen enforcement and public interest advocacy.”

It’s no secret that the current job market for attorneys is challenging. The experience students gain with Earthrise can make all the difference in getting hired. “Practical skills are more critical than ever,” says Associate Dean Weis. “The skills and opportunities our students gain with Earthrise are paramount today.”

That’s proven true for John Krallman JD ’11. He worked on the Boardman case and with ESCO, a foundry that faced opposition from neighborhood groups for air pollution. During his Earthrise experience, Krallman researched law, developed evidentiary presentations, conducted document review, worked with expert witnesses, and helped develop litigation strategy.

Earthrise enabled him to secure an Honors Fellowship with the EPA in Boston right after graduating. His experience and the contacts he made representing community groups in the ESCO case resulted in his current job as staff attorney for Neighbors for Clean Air. “I gained almost a full year of work experience with Earthrise, which was really helpful when applying for jobs postgraduation,” he says. “It enabled me to point to specific cases I was involved in and recount what I accomplished as part of the Earthrise team. And that was incredibly powerful.”

Attorney Heinzen, who is collaborating with Earthrise Law Center’s Boston office on pollution issues in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, agrees. “The experience you’ll gain and the relationships you’ll build through Earthrise will long outlast your time in law school.”


Bobbie Hasselbring writes frequently for the Chronicle.