Working as an Environmental Public Interest Lawyer: An Interview with Ka’sha Bernard, NDLS 2018

I just got the chance to catch up with one of our 2018 Shaffer Fellows, Ka’sha Bernard. Ka’sha is currently entering her second year as a Shaffer Fellow at the Crag Law Center in Portland, Oregon. Through her project, Ka’sha is working to build an environmental justice community in Portland by bridging the gap between traditional conservationism and urban environmental health concerns. I talked to Ka’sha about her first year at the Crag Law Center, her advice for law students, and how she got where she is.

KMB: Can you introduce yourself, where you are working, and generally what you are doing.  What do you do day-to-day? 

KB: I am a Legal Fellow at the Crag Law Center. Crag is a non-profit, environmental law firm. We provide low cost legal services to other environmental groups and non-profits. Day to day, it is litigation-focused so I do a lot of writing and research and also have client meetings and strategy meetings. We have three focus groups: The Wild, Climate, and Communities and within those, we have several different areas we focus on. I mostly deal with climate justice and environmental justice in Oregon and Washington.

KMB: Can you give me a specific example of something you have worked on?

KB: I have been fighting against the fossil fuel industry. Most recently, I have been looking into Canadian companies trying to build a pipeline along the Oregon coast so I have been learning land use law to help our clients try and stop the building of that pipeline. Our clients are a group of individuals on the coast of the Oregon shores called the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition. They are a group dedicated to preserving the natural beauty of the Oregon Coast.

KMB: Why is your job important? What need are you meeting? What would happen if you and Crag weren’t there?

KB: My job is important because especially right now, in this climate crisis and time when the environment is suffering, a lot of people have been tuned into the need to protect it and the need to preserve it for the current generation and future generations. Having a place like Crag where people without the means to combat huge challenges to the environment can get legal help is huge. We’re serving a need where we can help communities protect the natural world and if a group like us wasn’t able to provide legal assistance for little or no cost, big corporations and other environmentally-threatening entities would not be challenged and would continue to damage the natural world.

KMB: Most students here will go into private practice. How do private attorneys pitch in on your work? Do you interact with private attorneys at all?

KB: There are a few attorneys at solo firms who do environmental work and we interact with them. We will collaborate with them on some things and they’ll pitch in their expertise on some subjects. We’ve had policy conversations with them. There are some cases where they’ll lend their expertise. For instance, there is a waste water management case that I was assisting on while a co-worker was on sabbatical so a private attorney helped while she was gone. Because she was on sabbatical, we couldn’t take advantage of her expertise on waste water management issues so the private firm attorney lended his expertise in her absence.

KMB: Tell me a story to help me understand the challenge and the rewards of your work. Tell me about one of your clients or about something interesting or surprising that’s happened to you.  

 KB: The Oregon Department of Transportation was trying to expand a freeway in a historically black area of the city. There was a lot of history behind the area and the developments in the area diminished the population in that neighborhood. I got to work with a lot of different people on that project, which was challenging because there were a lot of different viewpoints, a lot of input, logistics, and history. It was interesting to jump into this project and learn about the historical context of what the freeway had done and what it was going to continue to do.

KMB: Tell me more about the freeway. What kind of impacts had it had?

KB: One of the big issues was that the freeway expansion would expand the freeway closer to the playground of a historically black middle school and a study came out early last year showing that the air quality in that area already wasn’t safe for those kids to play in. There is worry about that escalating. We helped write public comments for the community group and it was inspiring to see people come together. The rewarding part was letting the government agency know that all of these people have these concerns. There is a rumor that they are going to postpone the project further and do more research.

KMB: So, with the freeway, you weren’t strictly litigating but you were compiling public comments to stop the project?

KB: Yes.

KMB: What is the path that took you to this job? Is this something you imagined doing when you entered law school? How did you get from your first year of law school to your fellowship?

KB: I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do environmental work but environmental law is so broad. I let people know that I was interested in environmental law; not just professors but classmates as well so when students were searching for jobs, they would see something in environmental law and send it my way.

Someone sent me Crag’s website and it seemed like a good fit so I applied to work there for my 2L summer, had a great time during those 10 weeks, and then I worked with them on the fellowship application.

KMB: Think back to your first year of law school. What were your impressions when you started law school about public interest law?  Were there stereotypes?  What was the buzz? Then talk about how the reality may differ from what you thought originally.

KB: I always wanted to do public interest work but it seemed like a lot of the opportunities I happened to learn about were in criminal law or housing. There didn’t seem to be a lot of environmental public interest work that I was exposed to really. A stereotype about public interest law is that you’ll do what you love but you won’t get paid a lot, which is true. It’s still good work and I am glad I am doing it.

KMB: How do you manage your student debt? How can you afford to do this work? 

KB: I’m in the LRAP program so that’s helpful. I have a studio apartment and live a frugal lifestyle. I get by with what I need. I don’t have a roommate, which apparently is an anomaly in Portland. I could be paying less rent if I lived with more people. I am still living a good life. I could be better about budgeting but I’m doing pretty well.

KMB: Do you have any advice you would give to law students?

KB: My general advice is stay true to yourself, know what you want to go after, and do it. Ask for help along the way without feeling pressured to do what everyone else is doing. Katelynn, you mentioned it to me in law school the importance of brand management. Have a thing about you that people know about so if something comes up, people will let you know. (For me, that was environmental law.)

If you really want to do public interest, get involved in relevant student organizations. The Public Interest Law Forum was helpful and for me, the Environmental Law Society was relevant to my interests. Get close to professors who have done work in the area you are interested in and maintain and build those relationships because they can connect you to other people and other opportunities.

KMB: What do you hope to do in the future once your fellowship ends?

KB: Going forward, I want to stick with public interest and environmental work, preferably in Portland.

If you are interested in talking to Ka’sha, she would be happy to get connected with Notre Dame Students. Email me at katelynn.mcbride@nd.edu. If you want to learn more about public interest fellowships and public interest careers, contact me!

 

 

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