For Jeffrey Page it was a rare chance to learn from some of the nation’s cutting-edge state attorneys on environmental law. During an eight-week legal internship in the Office of the Attorney General of California, Page helped research ways Orange County might better comply with state clean air laws.

Gabby Reynoso’s internship took her to the Central Valley, where she helped a state environmental group work for stronger regulations for dairies before the state Air Quality Control Board.

And Daniel Park found himself in the office of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, where Park researched ways to make that city’s work greener.

All three law students were the beneficiaries of a partnership between the American Bar Association and the Hewlett Foundation designed to give traditionally underserved law students a chance to gain hands-on experience in the practice of environmental law.

“It can be hard to get started in environmental law,” said Page, now a third-year student at Rutgers University School of Law in New Jersey. “I’ve always wanted to be of service and help people. Environmental law is one of the most pressing fields right now. It’s particularly an issue in minority communities, which often get overlooked. This definitely will help.”

The Hewlett Foundation’s New Constituencies for the Environment initiative, a part of its Environment Program, co-funded a dozen would-be lawyers to work on legal issues related to air pollution and other environmental concerns at professional offices across California. That work, in turn, is part of the American Bar Association’s Fellowships in Environmental Law program, which places summer interns in workplaces nationally.
The program’s focus, on first- and second-year law students from underrepresented or underserved groups, both minority and lower income, is a neat fit with the Foundation’s work on developing new constituencies for environmental advocacy.

“California is a bellwether both for environmental law and for the kinds of demographic shifts the whole nation will eventually face,” said Danielle Deane, an Environment Program Officer at the Foundation. “This fellowship will help ensure that our future environmental leaders reflect the diverse communities they serve.”

In addition to providing work in the field, the program pairs each intern with an attorney mentor with whom he or she may consult throughout the internship.

Park, a third-year law student at Boston College, said that the real-world experience changed his understanding of his class work.

“My summer was eye-opening, to say the least,” he said. “The chance to work at the policy level and see the work behind initiatives and regulations gave me a refreshing perspective on my studies and career. My interests in law were almost too varied. After working at the mayor’s office, I think I’m more able to focus on specific areas of law I’d like to pursue. At the same time, it gave me a broader perspective on how to use a legal education.” 

For Reynoso, now in her second year at the New College of California School of Law in San Francisco, the summer work at the Center on Race Poverty and the Environment did more to affirm her interest in environmental law than to revise it. The experience also reminded her how difficult it can be to achieve change.

“My case is different from most people’s,” she said. “I was doing this work before I went to law school and was familiar with the Center.”

And the regulation she labored to strengthen? Well, not every campaign ends in victory.

“We went to the hearing and testified that we thought the proposed rule needed to be stronger because it would just keep the status quo,” she said. “And the board decided that was fine with them. They accepted the rule as it existed anyway.”

But Page may have spoken most aptly for all the interns when he expressed his enthusiasm for the potential he sees in environmental law: “It’s a field where the sky is the limit.”