Interview with Ms. Nancy Marks: Education & Career Guidance in Environmental Law

Interview with Ms. Nancy Marks: Education & Career Guidance in Environmental Law

Nancy Marks is a Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, where she represents national and local public interest groups in defending the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and other environmental litigation in Federal courts. With NRDC, over the past 20 years, she has had a number of important victories on behalf of citizens' groups, helping to ensure that companies clean up past environmental damage and prevent future damage from occurring.

She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the New Jersey Work Environment Council and the Eastern Environmental Law Center. She holds several bar memberships and has been a guest lecturer at Columbia Law School, New York University Environmental Law Clinic, Fordham Law School, and several other schools. In the spring of 2004, she will be co-lecturer of an Urban Environmental Law course at Cardozo Law School.

Ms. Marks received her B.S. in Geology at Williams College and went on to get her M.S. in Geology at Stanford University. After working for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service, she went on to get her J.D. at Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, she interned with both the Environmental Defense Fund and the Conservation Law Foundation of New England. Ms. Marks was also the Assistant Attorney General for the Environmental Protection Division of Massachusetts.

About Ms. Marks & Her Career

Tell us about your career and how it unfolded. What made you decide that you wanted to be an Environmental Lawyer? How did you end up at NRDC?

If someone had told me at age 24 that I would become a lawyer, I would have told them they were crazy. In 1976, I started in a Ph.D. program in geology, planning to become a marine sedimentologist. By 1978, I had decided I would never have an original scientific idea, so I dropped out with an M.S. For my next three jobs, I worked briefly as a geologist in Redwood National Park, a carpenter in Bolinas, California, and a secretary in Grantham, New Hampshire. One day I woke up and decided it would be cool to be a public interest environmental lawyer. Of course, I had awakened on many other days, thinking it would be cool to be a scientific journalist, or a high school earth sciences teacher, or a weaver. But for some reason, this idea took root. The environment had never been at the top of my political priorities list, but, while working in Redwood National Park, I was impressed that Sierra Club's lawyers had saved the tallest trees in the world from the chainsaw. I also liked the idea of using my science background for political ends.

Going into law school knowing that I wanted to do this work made it easier. I went to the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco right after graduation, for a largely unfunded fellowship. My spouse was clerking for a judge there, so I basically had to create a place for myself. NRDC was kind enough to take me in. After a year, we returned to Boston, where I worked for the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, suing polluters. That was a great job, and it offered tremendous training for a new lawyer. When circumstances brought us to the New York area in 1986, my NRDC colleagues from California told me about an opening in the New York office. I have been here ever since, and I still sue polluters.

What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you find to be rewarding?

There are rewards at so many levels. I prefer working as part of a team, and my colleagues are the best - smart, committed, supportive. Everyone who works here could easily be making a much higher salary in the private sector, so I am surrounded by idealists. I like piecing together a million bits of evidence to construct the narrative of a case. A lawsuit should be a great story, and the facts should largely speak for themselves. I like translating scientific and technical material into concepts that make sense to a judge. I like to write, and that has always been a big part of my job. The most rewarding thing is taking on a major corporation or government agency, along with all their lawyers, and beating them in court.

How important is membership in Bar Associations?

Actually, I am not a member of a single bar association - I am a member of several state and federal bars, which just means I am admitted to practice in those courts. So, I guess it's safe to say it is not a factor in my career. The only bar association I ever belonged to was the Boston Bar Association's environmental section, which had interesting lunches once a month. It was a small group with non-profit, government, and private sector lawyers, and the discussions were always lively. Since that time (1986), I have avoided professional associations because I have seen them as being largely made up of lawyers representing private, moneyed interests. As an attorney working for a non-profit advocacy organization, I am a bit outside the professional mainstream, and happy to be there. In all fairness, though, some of my NRDC colleagues have found rewards from participating in the environmental sections of New York City and County bar associations.

Please tell us about one of your greatest successes, as well as one of the biggest setbacks in your career.

My favorite victory so far just happened a little over a year ago. We brought a lawsuit against some chemical companies in Maine that were responsible for dumping a lot of mercury into the Penobscot River. When the case went to trial, the other side put on a parade of very articulate guys with Ph.D.s, with hundreds of charts and graphs, all testifying that the mercury was not a problem. To make matters worse, witnesses from state and federal agencies also testified that everything was under control. We had one biologist, with nearly 40 years of experience, who calmly explained to the judge (without charts and graphs) what really happens when mercury gets into an aquatic ecosystem, and why the polluters' story was based on junk science. When I found out that the judge ruled in our favor, I burst into tears. We had worked so hard, and I really believed we were right, but that's never a guarantee of success in this business.

One of the most frustrating things happened in a case against a hazardous waste incinerator in Kentucky about eight years ago. We were doing well in the district court, but the court of appeals decided that the federal judges should defer to the Kentucky state agency, which we thought was not doing its job. Our clients included a bunch of sweet, elderly women who were absolutely ferocious about extracting information from government files and had thoroughly educated themselves about the dangers being imposed on their community. I felt that we had let them down, and I worried about their families.

About Environmental Law

Please describe a typical day of work for you.

That's a tough one, because they vary so much. But the main point is that litigators like me actually spend a minuscule amount of time in court. Most of our work involves phone calls, email, legal and factual research, document review, meetings, and writing. Once every few years, we go to trial, which requires months of tremendously intense effort. If I had to be in trial mode all the time, I couldn't sustain this job. I am not Perry Mason.

Other than the subject matter, what makes Environmental Law different from other law specialties?

There are few areas of law that are so bound up with science. And, there is an entire industry made up of environmental consultants, many of whom make their living from finding ways to minimize the appearance of risk from pollution. So, we depend very heavily on finding those experts who are not captured by industry. In general, though, I don't think practicing public interest environmental law is that different from practicing in other areas of public interest law, such as civil rights or consumer protection.

The stereo-typical image of environmental lawyers pits "the good of the people" against "industry polluters" - for instance, in popular in movies like "Erin Brokovich" and "A Civil Action." More often than not, is this really the case? Are lawyers who specialize in environmental law easily categorized into "pro-environment" and/or "pro-industry"?

Many people who practice environmental law advise their industrial clients on complying with the law; others represent corporations in apportioning financial responsibility for pollution among the responsible parties. For those lawyers, there is no clear "pro-environment" or "pro-industry" label. In my work, however, it's easy to slip into those stereotypes, and, in fact, it can be part of the motivation. When we're suing a polluter who is spending millions of dollars on avoiding responsibility for a cleanup, while NRDC's members, other clients, and the environment are at real risk (or already suffering ill effects), those categorizations seem meaningful. I can't speak for the mindset of an environmental lawyer who specializes in defending industry polluters, but I can say that we do see ourselves as championing the public interest. And after 20 years of suing industrial polluters, I confess I don't have a very positive view about what motivates most corporations.

What kinds of different audiences do you deal with on a regular basis? Do you find that you need to communicate with these groups in different ways?

I communicate regularly with a range of audiences, including students, lawyers, reporters, scientists, engineers, economists, community activists, government staff, court personnel, NRDC board of directors, and union officials. For each group, I need to think about what message I want to deliver, what information my audience already has, and what is appropriate for the setting (e.g., a brownbag lunch, a court hearing, a press conference, a meeting with a legal intern).

Perhaps my most important (and challenging) audience is made up of the federal judges who decide our cases. With them, I have limited, somewhat ritualized, opportunities to communicate large amounts of highly-technical or legally-arcane information. Credibility is crucial, so we are extra careful not to overreach in our court advocacy. We also need to give judges a reason to care about our cases, so it's important to show them the real-world consequences of what's at issue, and not just make legal arguments. Since we feel passionate about all our cases, it's not hard to find a way to animate the subject matter. The longer I practice law, the more I see cases as "stories to be told compellingly". The facts should speak for themselves without our having to tell the judge that they matter.

What are some of the important contributions that you feel Environmental Law has made to society?

The United States has a highly developed body of environmental law embodied in state and federal statutes, agency regulations, and court opinions. Almost all of this law has developed over just the past 35 years. It gives us a set of tools to address many of the pressing environmental problems of our times, although there are obviously limitations. Perhaps the most important contribution is the grant of power to ordinary citizens to participate in environmental decision-making and to file lawsuits when things go wrong. Because of the tremendous resources brought to bear by industry and the government, it's not always easy for citizens to have their voices heard, but we can be pretty noisy.

In your opinion, who are some of the most prominent and influential environmental lawyers in the world today?

I travel in narrow circles, so I can't say who the international stars are. But I can tell you that two of the environmental lawyers I admire most are my own NRDC colleague, Mitchell Bernard, with whom I've had the privilege of litigating a number of cases, and Jim Hecker, who works with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. In a field that is full of talented lawyers, they both stand out for me as particularly smart, creative, persuasive, hard-working, and dedicated public interest advocates.

Education in the Field: What to Expect

What kinds of jobs do entry-level graduates usually get? Is internship experience or other work experience helpful in landing a job?

I usually recommend to law students that they try to get judicial clerkships, especially if they want to be litigators. I never even applied for one, because I was too impatient to begin practicing law, but it would have been very helpful to me. There are also a number of one- to two-year legal fellowships in public interest environmental law (including some at NRDC) that provide great training. Like clerkships, they are generally highly competitive, but they can be found all over the country. Some state and federal government agencies and attorney generals' (or U.S. Department of Justice) offices hire new law graduates into jobs that I would consider a good start to a public interest career, depending on the political mission of the particular office. Of course, on the other side, many recent graduates go straight to law firms, where training quality varies widely. Some associates get valuable hands-on litigation experience from the beginning, while others may spend years without any real responsibilities (beyond having to work extremely long hours).

What can graduates expect to earn in the beginning? How about at the senior level?

My perspective may be skewed from being in New York City, but the range is enormous - from the somewhere around the $30,000 range (or less, especially if you're basically creating a position that doesn't exist, like I did my first year out of school) for some public interest organizations, fellowships, or state/local government jobs, to 4-5 times that (with bonuses) for some big law firms. Federal clerkships fall somewhere in between, and some public interest groups offer higher starting salaries than the low end of the range. At the senior level, the gap widens. I figure that some law firm partners with experience equivalent to mine are earning 7-10 times my salary. All of these figures are strictly ballpark, but it gives you some idea about the differences between the public and private sectors. Put it this way - after 20 years as a lawyer, I earn considerably less than a first-year associate in a New York City law firm. I should also add that I've never been tempted for one moment to join that world, for reasons that should be obvious by now.

What advice can you give aspiring Environmental Lawyers to help them stand out in the crowd and get the job they want?

I can speak only to those who want to be public interest lawyers:

  • Study whatever you want in college, as long as you find it exciting and challenging.
  • Go to the best law school you can get into, regardless of whether it has an environmental program. You might also choose a public law school that will allow you to pursue a lower-paying public-interest career, because you will not be crippled by educational debt (and some of these are the best schools).
  • Demonstrate your commitment to the public interest (whether environmental or in other areas) in many ways, from your campus/community activities to your summer and full-time jobs. (I'd probably be more inclined to hire someone who has served in the Peace Corps or written reports for a civil liberties organization than someone who worked as a paralegal for the environmental department of a big law firm.)
  • Get a judicial clerkship if you can; it will really advance your analytical and writing skills.
  • Be creative and persistent; don't just grab any job because you're nervous about all your friends having their employment offers at the beginning of their third year in law school.
  • And, finally, don't take my advice too literally; everyone has different ideas about what leads to success.

How is the job market today for environmental lawyers? How do you expect it will be in the next 5 years? 10 years?

When I first went into environmental law, some people thought it was a slightly obscure, limiting sort of career. A number of years later, when I told someone what I did, they said "Oh, the hot field!" There are a lot of lawyers practicing environmental law today, and I expect there to be a lot in 5 or 10 years. I wish I could say that salutary events would put me out of a job, but I'm afraid that's not happening. Although it seems to violate the laws of supply and demand, it remains more difficult to land a public interest job that pays less (because there are fewer of those jobs). But I believe that anyone who works hard, is highly motivated, and has some geographic flexibility can find a rewarding job in the field.

Jobs in the Field: What to Expect

You have a background in Geology. Do you feel that having that background knowledge has been helpful in understanding some of the more science-based aspects of Environmental Law? Would you recommend that students have a science-based background?

Although I rarely call upon actual academic knowledge or experience, it has been very helpful for me to have a general science background, as well as an abiding interest in science. (Since I haven't studied geology for 25 years, it's a good thing I'm not relying on the particulars of my education.) Having said that, I note that many of my colleagues at NRDC avoided studying science in college, mostly majoring in history and English. But it is important to be willing and able to become conversant in the scientific and technical concepts with which our cases are invariably intertwined. We work with experts who help us master the concepts we need to know - whether it's aquatic ecology, epidemiological studies, or the workings of coal-fired power plants. The bottom line is that a science background is not a prerequisite for the successful practice of environmental law, but I would not recommend this field to anyone who is reluctant to grapple with technical issues.

Do you consider a degree or emphasis in environmental law to be a pre-requisite for professionals today?

No. It obviously does not hurt to concentrate on environmental issues (for example, by being involved in a school's environmental law clinic), but it is far from necessary, in my opinion. What's important is to sharpen one's generic legal skills (analytical precision, creative and thorough researching, clear writing) and demonstrate one's commitment to the public interest. I firmly believe that we pick up most of the particulars of our work by doing it, and any specific law school training will quickly be dwarfed by on-the-job experience.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected schools or programs in the US for Environmental Law?

Some of the programs/clinics that come to mind (with some regional bias) are:

But this is pretty random. And, as I said earlier, I think it's more important to go to the best law school one can (taking into account financial considerations) than to select a law school with an environmental focus. All other things being equal, of course, you might want to pick a school with more environmental offerings. Also, some people might want to consider schools offering joint degrees in law and a field related to environmental practice (e.g., environmental studies, urban planning, natural resources). I know a lot of people who feel it was worthwhile to take the extra year to pick up the second degree. Some excellent places to do this include the University of Michigan, Yale University, and New York University (which offers a joint degree with the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton).

How many years of school does a student have to attend in order to become a lawyer?

Three years of law school. Compared to other disciplines, where you might need a Ph.D., it's really not very long.

The Industry

How has the popularity of computers, specifically the Internet, affected your profession?

When I started practicing law, we were just barely starting to have word processors and electronic research. I resisted computerization a little bit, preferring to draft my legal briefs on a pad of paper. Now, I'm totally wedded to my laptop and can't imagine trying to revise my written work one laboriously-typed draft at a time. The ability to do both legal and factual research on-line has completely revolutionized my profession, along with just about everyone else's. The Internet is particularly helpful to me at the stage when I'm looking into a problem to figure out whether it can be the subject of a litigation. I can look at government reports, newspaper articles, scientific papers, citizen activist websites, and corporate disclosures to get a fuller picture of the situation. Most legal research can now be conducted on-line, too, although I sometimes still use the books.

What are the three greatest challenges in the field of Environmental Law today?

In my work, the biggest challenges are rebutting the increasingly-sophisticated presentations of industry consultants, convincing judges that they should not defer to government action (that may appear appropriate but is actually ineffective), and remaining hopeful in the face of daily bad news.

A Final Word

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in Environmental Law?

I just want to say that it's possible to have both an intense career and a full family life, but it requires sacrifices at both ends. I consciously avoid some professional activities that might advance my career (like environmental law conferences) because of the extra time they require. And, for many years, I have worked only four days a week (except when I'm approaching a trial, when I work seven). On the other hand, I do spend a fair number of days on the road for my cases. I am lucky to have a supportive spouse who is a highly capable (and flexible) single parent, as well as kids who think what I do is cool and are used to having me travel. Without that, it would be very difficult to keep all the balls in the air. Also, while we all work hard, NRDC is a very family-friendly workplace.

I think people starting their careers need to reflect upon the whole package and envision what kind of life they want - from the start, and also 10 or 20 years down the road. Consider such questions as whether a big law firm leaves enough time for your personal life, or whether litigation is too stressful, or whether to opt for a stable civil service agency position over a more exciting political agency appointment. Fulfillment comes from many quarters, and some lawyers limit their lives in ways that they may eventually regret.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the educational and career outlook for Environmental Law majors, click here.

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