Working in Environmental Law in Wisconsin: An Interview with Robert Lee, NDLS 2018

Yesterday, I talked with one of our 2018  Thomas L. Shaffer Fellows, Robert Lee. Rob is currently entering his second year as a BOAF Fellow at Midwest Environmental Advocates in Madison, Wisconsin. Through his project, Rob is enhancing his organization’s ability to protect Wisconsin’s water resources by enforcing state and federal laws designed to safeguard the public health and the environment. I talked to Rob about his first year at Midwest Environmental Advocates, his advice for law students, and how he got where he is.

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

RL: I am an attorney at Midwest Environmental Advocates in Madison. Before getting the Shaffer Fellowship and starting here, I worked here during law school over my 2L summer, so it was easy to hit the ground running. Day to day, there’s no telling what I’ll be doing. I may be in the office doing research or briefing, out in communities all over the state attending public hearings or community meetings on different environmental issues, or at the Department of Natural Resources building discussing permits or rules they are trying to promulgate. I respond to media requests when relevant to the work that we do or awareness or education campaigns we’re doing.

We also participate in coalitions across the state and region with science, legal, and policy based environmental groups. We trade ideas and make each other aware of different issues. It’s a crapshoot. My schedule is all over the place.

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

RL: One thing that I am proud of working on is a hazardous waste issue, specifically PFAS (Per- and polyflouroalkyl substances). PFAS are a class of highly toxic chemicals that have been used since the 1940s in all sorts of commercial products like non stick cookware and dental floss. We’re just now starting to understand how highly toxic these things are. They are all throughout our environment, contaminating water supplies. They are also used in certain fire fighting foams designed for electrical or gasoline fires. They have been used in airports and on Air Force bases. Here, in Madison they historically used these chemicals to do firefighting training on the local Air National Guard base near the airport. The groundwater there has PFAS concentrations exceeding 40000 parts per trillion when the EPA specifies that it should be 70. The PFAS chemicals have migrated off of the base and have contaminated a water well here in town, which has since been shut down.

Since PFAS is an emerging contaminate, little is known about it and there are no enforceable standards regulating it in Wisconsin. So it has been a battle to figure out what exactly should be done. I have been attending water utility board meetings to figure out how different communities are responding, participating in Technical Advisory Committee meetings at the Department of Natural Resources that inform policy development, and submitting public comments when necessary.

Some of what’s going on seems to be behind closed doors, so I have worked to assist community members in submitting open records requests. I also facilitated MEA’s partnership with an organization that has the ability to provide low-cost testing so people can see if they are at risk. I put together a webpage to provide resources. And just in case government doesn’t do what needs to be done, I have litigation researched and ready to go.

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

RL: Midwest Environmental Advocates exists to fill gaps that occurred after Wisconsin’s Public Intervenor’s office was eliminated. The Legislature did away with that office in 1995 and we were formed a few years later. The Public Intervenor was an Assistant Attorney General hyper focused on protecting natural resources and the public health. Rather than represent the state, the Public Intervenor would actually sue state agencies and others to protect the environment.

Our organization was formed and we have filled that role quite well over the past few decades. Knowing it is a non-profit and can only do so much, me coming in and expanding our services through my fellowship project was a really good opportunity.

We were the first organization pushing for standards to regulate concentrated animal feeding operations. Back in the early 2000s, there were no regulations at all and now we are working with the state to try to revise those and make them even better and protect rural communities in the vicinity of these large livestock facilities. We’ve been able to provide that technical and long-standing expertise. We’re the only public interest non-profit environmental law firm in the state that goes to bat for these communities and under-represented populations. Ours is entirely mission driven so we never compromise or play politics. We just focus on doing what’s right.

We’re also the only organization in the state that monitors the water pollution permitting program. We read every single permit issued from DNR to make sure it complies with the law, although we mostly focus on those that grant variances from well-established water criteria like mercury or phosphorous.

A lot of times people are just focused on their lives and unless something impacts them on an everyday basis, they might not recognize it. For instance, the state legislature passed a bill that would have rescinded hundreds of thousands of guidance documents in the state that help guide people through things like obtaining Medicaid. We can provide that expertise and raise the alarm when other people wouldn’t even know the legislature was doing that. If we don’t intervene, people won’t even know it is happening until they have to deal with the health department during the application process.

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?

RL: Quite a bit. We have one law firm in particular that we work with quite often. One of their partners actually lives a block from me and every now and then we even carpool to work, talking about the issues we are working on. Because we’re a non-profit, we don’t always have the capacity to take something on, and we definitely don’t have the resources private law firms have. So we’ll refer things out to this particular law firm and others. They’re able to provide resources and legal opinions and advice in areas we’re either not well versed in or don’t have the capacity to take on.

We’re also often up against opposing counsel from private firms that have a lot of those resources, so we need all the help we can get. Also, larger public interest organizations provide us support too such as NRDC and the Sierra Club.

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. 

RL: We have an intake hotline and citizens from all across the state will call us when they have a problem even tangentially related to the environment or public health. We may refer it out, do a limited response, or it may be right up our alley and we respond in full force.

One day this lady who lived in a rural area called and she was freaking out over her lawn, which is an understatement. She had allowed her lawn to grow because she was trying to grow a native prairie. We have a plummeting bee and monarch butterfly population so she was trying to do her part. The town was trying to cut her prairie down and she was emotional. A lot of times this job is just about talking with people and listening. Her type of case isn’t something we work on. It’s just a property dispute with the town. But by me just listening to her for over an hour and letting her knowing someone cared, meant a lot. We took time to find an attorney to help her. A few days later, I came back in to the office to find I had a voicemail where she said “I called 15 people and no one would listen to me, I know you can’t take my case but just the fact you were willing to listen to me shows there are still good people out there.” It’s such a small thing, but every time I think about that it makes me smile.

A similar sort of thing happened when I was working her during my 2L summer as a clerk. A lady who reminded me of my grandma called our intake hotline. She lived in a trailer next to a horse farm, which had regraded its property and built a barn. Storm water runoff was carrying manure and flooding her property. She could only access her trailer by canoeing through the manure filled water. It was a private property dispute between neighbors and so we couldn’t help directly, but no one would listen to her, and we were able to get her some help by referring her out to another attorney.

It shows the value of our organization even when we’re not litigating.

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?

RL: It is something I broadly imagined. 1L year, I wasn’t sure of the organization I would end up at. I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, but I first got interested in water law during my senior year of undergrad, where in our Arkansas State Government class, everyone was writing about the Governor and state legislature, and I wrote about access to a trout fishing area in NW Arkansas. I was mostly just mad and started investigating why this creek was listed in the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission trout book, but when I went there, there was a fence in the middle of the creek to prevent me from getting in and when I did people called the sheriff.

I came to law school thinking I wanted to do water law so I was focused on that. I knew about Professor Nagle and Professor Huber and made it a point to meet them and figure out what classes they would be teaching and when. I tried to figure out not just what I needed to know about environmental laws themselves but the other skills you need to be an effective environmental attorney. You need practical skills as an attorney; it’s not enough to be able to recite every provision of the Clean Water Act.

Anyway, my wife is from Michigan so I originally applied to Notre Dame to make her dad happy, not thinking I would get in. But I did. I worked at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality my 1L summer. I learned a lot working for the agency but I really did not like Lansing and knowing there would be more opportunity to do what I wanted if I was located in a state capital, I tried the other side of Lake Michigan and applied to Midwest Environmental Advocates for 2L summer.

2L summer at MEA was great because they gave me a lot of leeway. You need to be a self-starter here. You can’t be babied. It’s a small firm with limited resources. I was really active.

Then, it was you who sent me the email and asked “are you interested in this fellowship?” While it wasn’t quite a square peg in a round hole, I did have to think long and hard about how my work would fit in with the mission of the fellowships. I submitted an application, interviewed, and got it. After the bar exam, my wife and I took a month to do a big national parks trip and then I started here. I’ve been so busy that there’s still sand in my car from Utah.

KMB: You mentioned that you need to be in a state capital to do the kind of work you want to do. Why is that?

RL: Our work is hyper focused on administrative law and that is where the administrative agencies are headquartered. Whether we’re going to challenge a permit in a contested case hearing, or we’re going to petition for judicial review of agency action in court, all things flow from or at least through Madison. The capital is the hub in almost any state.

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.

RL: I think it’s difficult for some students to wrap their brains around going to a highly ranked law school and getting all of this first class legal training only to turn around and take a much lower salary than what your peers will make just to help people. It’s especially difficult to consider that path when taking on student loans. It can be a little scary to even contemplate that so maybe a lot of students dismiss it off the bat. I did a little bit of research. I also knew that LRAP existed so even if I didn’t make a ton of money right away, I would get a little bit of help.

I knew that environmental law is really competitive anyway so the starting pay won’t be great, but if you put the work in after 2-5 years, you really have more opportunities and your pay will go up. Also, public interest work is great, substantive work. I’m not locked in a basement doing doc review for a more senior attorney. My first filing was an amicus brief in a state supreme court. I am putting the full array of my skills to use.

Also, take into account cost of living. Madison is cheaper than Chicago, and I live south of Madison in a small town that is even cheaper. These areas need well-trained public interest attorneys as much as anywhere else, if not more so, and you don’t have to subject yourself to such a ridiculous cost of living.

Going in I made my peace with wanting to do public interest and knew I wouldn’t be making 150K coming out. Besides, I’m a non-traditional student. I’m the first person in my family to graduate college let alone professional school. I literally make more per year than any person in my family ever has. I was a little kid on food stamps so I know what it means to stretch a dollar.

ND is a great place to be if you’re serious about public interest work. We have opportunities that other law schools don’t have.

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

RL: I think the LRAP helps quite a bit. For me, it adds nearly 10K in value to my salary. The amount of money you get from LRAP depends on the rate at which you want to pay your loans. Some law schools require you to do income based repayment and stretch our your loan payments for 20 to 30 years. I am in my 30s already and I don’t want to be in my 50s paying off my student loans.

Notre Dame lets you do the 10-year payment plan if you want so you can maximize the benefit from LRAP. I am spending more money up front, but I’m getting more value because Notre Dame is paying more of my loans off through LRAP. My pay will increase eventually and offset that. Being in a 10-year payment plan also means not paying as much interest.

It is difficult at times but I know how to pinch a penny when necessary. I have a little over 100K in student loans from undergrad and law school so it’s a lot and it’s hard but I think Notre Dame allows people wanting to go into public interest who have debt to still be able to make it.

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

RL: I hate networking but I think it has provided a lot of dividends, not just from knowing people for my own benefit but knowing other attorneys in the community who can help my clients. If you’re going to be an effective public interest attorney, you need to have a network for your clients. You need to be able to tell people who call you “I can’t help you with this issue but I know who can.” Instead of turning people away, you can give them the contact information of another lawyer, but you need to have that network. And referrals are a two-way street.

Through networking, you do forge relationships so your contacts can help you personally but you need to also look at it through the lens of building relationships so you can be a more effective public interest attorney on behalf of others. When you look at it through that lens, you can get around much of the awkwardness with networking. You have a great excuse to go get coffee. I’ve built so much more substantive relationships and even friendships when we’re talking about something that matters.

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

RL: I really like the state of Wisconsin even though I am not originally from here. Even if I am not at MEA, we are looking at Wisconsin for the near term—five years at least. I actually recently got a raise so they recognize that I am not just at MEA as dead weight but I am adding value. We had a little bit of turnover with the change of administration and some attorneys got hired away to the State Department of Justice, so there will likely be the opportunity to stay on here if things continue to go well.

And if I don’t stay on after the fellowship, some of the networking I have done in a working capacity will help me find a position elsewhere if I want.

If you want to talk to Rob, he is happy to talk to NDLS students interested in public interest, environmental law, or Wisconsin. Email me at katelynn.mcbride@nd.edu for his contact information.

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