A fish out of water, no more: Three semesters in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic

Did you know that North Carolina is one of the few states in the country that has a certain provision under the Endangered Species Act in place that allows “take” of sea turtles in one of its fisheries? Or that the International Seabed Authority is drafting rules right now that bring countries one step closer to conducting deep sea mining?

I personally didn’t know these fun facts either about the marine environment and North Carolina, until I learned them in a rather unsuspecting setting: the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

The Environmental Law and Policy Clinic is, I believe, one of the greatest assets to the Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program. “Clinics” are often hallmarks of different law programs across the country, typically open exclusively to law students and act as one of the main draws in attracting students to certain schools. But at Duke, MEM students are able to participate in Duke Law’s Clinic, too, and work side-by-side with students from Duke Law and the Sanford School of Public Policy.

The clinic, offered jointly by Duke Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment, allows students to work on real-world legal and policy cases for clients. The course models a boutique law firm, with students clocking hours for their cases just as they would for a job. Requiring a bare minimum of 100 clocked working hours per semester just to scratch the surface for the needs of your client (and to pass the course), the Clinic is one of the most demanding classes offered at the Nicholas School.

Despite the time commitment, the rewards are numerous. Students work on real-world policy items and work is applied, rather than completed just as an academic exercise. The subject matter of the cases are diverse, ranging from environmental justice topics, water quality issues, sea turtle conservation, wildlife management in Africa and more. Likewise, the work deliverables vary widely, including everything from map-making to legal petitions.

One perk of the Clinic: Field trips to the coast and meeting adorable dogs. Taken while visiting a client last spring along the southeastern Cape Fear River.

I’m in my third and, sadly, final semester in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, which has become a hallmark of my Duke experience and, quite literally, has shaped the direction of my life and career trajectory. To date, I have clocked 350 hours of work on my cases, which have ranged from cases on marine debris, bycatch reduction, coastal development and seabed mining. Through these cases, I’ve toured sea turtle hospitals, gone boating in the Cape Fear River, attended public hearings, presented at conferences, and more—all of which are experiences I wouldn’t have had without the clinic.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to participate in the clinic remotely from Duke’s Marine Lab, where I was able to meet with stakeholders in person and be inspired daily by the environments we are seeking to protect in the clinic. The flexibility to take the clinic in-person in Durham and also remotely in Beaufort is yet another perk of the clinic, and allows students to gain legal and policy experience alongside cutting-edge science at the Marine Lab.

I often ask myself why I keep taking the clinic, and why I don’t just take a normal class that doesn’t require the same time demands. But, for me, the fast-paced and intensive nature of my cases has become addictive, and has proven to be an excellent outlet at applying science and policy skills I’ve gained at the Nicholas School to the subjects I am most passionate about. I’ve also enjoyed how the nature of the clinic – which inherently requires an extra degree of professionalism in representing actual clients and submitting weekly time sheets – has kept me connected with the professional world in this graduate school bubble.

Meeting a rehabilitating Loggerhead Sea Turtle during a visit to one of the clinic’s clients, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rehabilitation and Rescue Center.

While the cases I have enjoyed working on the most are undoubtedly the two sea turtle-related policy cases, my most rewarding Clinic experience occurred just over a year ago. I joined a standing 8-year-long Clinic case, working to stop Titan Cement from building a cement plant along the northeast Cape Fear River. I was working on understanding impacts to the ecosystem from potentially mercury contamination when we suddenly found out that Titan Cement cancelled its plans to build the plant.

I had first gotten involved with Titan while an undergraduate student at UNC Wilmington in 2008 when Titan first announced their plans to come to southeastern North Carolina, so to see the issue come full circle was extremely rewarding. I was still relatively new to the clinic as this point last spring, but this victory showed me that the clinic’s work actually did make a significant difference for the environment. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Opportunities like this—where Nicholas School students can take a range of classes at other professional schools at Duke—are what I believe to be one of the hallmarks of the MEM program. Not only has working on these cases shaped my career goals to go into protected species policy, but the clinic is also where I met some of my closest friends and roommates at Duke. For these reasons and many, many more, I am proud to say that the clinic has been one of my favorite experiences at the Nicholas School.