Wake Forest’s law school is among the top 10 in the nation for greenest law schools, a fact reflected in its student body. “We have a growing group of students who are interested in environmental law at Wake Forest,” says Scott Schang. In addition to being a professor of practice and a member of the CEES board of directors, Schang is also the director of the law school’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic (ELPC). The clinic, which began in the spring semester of 2020, has quickly become an integral experiential learning opportunity for WFU lawyers-in-training interested in pursuing careers in local, state, federal, or international environmental law and policy. In addition to serving clients and training students in the nuts and bolts of sustainability law, “we want to give them an experience that is meaningful for them,” Schang explains.
As part of the clinic, students each take on their own clients, many of whom approach the clinic directly for help. The only requirement for clients is that they must be unable to otherwise afford legal representation. In the past two years, students have worked on cases spanning a range of environmental and sustainability law: some have worked with a nearby school situated on contaminated land, others have studied issues of land and property rights, and still more have collaborated with local groups to dissect the laws around concentrated chicken feeding operations in other states, with the hope of installing similar regulations here in North Carolina.
Students work independently under Schang’s supervision and regularly meet to debrief with each other. Aside from exposing these budding lawyers to a range of environmental issues, Schang says, the experience is “really about learning to become a lawyer: what it means to represent someone else, to speak on their behalf, to ask hard questions, and to put your opinion out there and stand behind it.”
The ELPC brings the research and policy-oriented aspects of being a lawyer to life. Sometimes students’ cases have tidy conclusions, such as a 2020 collaboration with the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation looking at land loss and land tenure instability in Winston Salem and Forsyth County. One of the drivers of tenure insecurity is heirs property, which disproportionately affects Black North Carolinians and often prevents people from passing down their land to their heirs because it was never registered properly. This, in turn, opens the door for developers to dispossess them from their land, turning it from farmland to subdivisions or resorts. The work the clinic did with the New America Foundation was incorporated into a national study on housing insecurity, bringing our community’s land tenure problems to the national stage.
Sometimes the cases aren’t so cut-and-dry. Last year, the ELPC worked with local community members whose property was being eroded by increased stream drainage. They suspected upstream development as the culprit, and asked the students to investigate. Working with local experts, they discovered that the increased erosion was actually due to increased rainfall, linked to climate change. “What can you do with that?” Schang asks, noting that people can’t sue climate change. The best option was to connect the complainants to state funds earmarked for climate change adaptation.
In the true spirit of Pro Humanitate, the ELPC is giving students the tools and opportunities to build a tangibly better world. In addition to helping people here in Forsyth County and around the world (in another case, students have helped an international NGO craft legislation to help protect environmental and land defenders for other countries to adopt) and raising the law school’s profile, the clinic has also proven successful for students on a professional level. Previous participants have gone on to work at the EPA, the courts, and Attorney General’s offices of Colorado and Virginia. “The opportunity to make an impact on an issue that is important to me was a terrific reminder of my motivation to pursue a legal education in the first place,” wrote past participant Katie Otterbeck in her recommendation of the ELPC to fellow students.
The Environmental Law and Policy Clinic runs during the spring of each academic year. Visit the clinic’s website for more information.