I went to law school to be an environmental lawyer. I clerked for the Attorney General’s Land Law Section and the Natural Resources Defense Council during my summers, but finding a post-grad job in my dream field was challenging. During law school, I focused on marine resources, fisheries, and aquaculture law and policy, so I accepted a temporary position at the University of Arkansas that would allow me to focus on aquaculture and fisheries.
While researching for an aquaculture project, I stumbled upon the California Sea Grant website and saw that they offered fellowships in marine policy for recent graduate students. I thought there was no reason a J.D. shouldn’t count as a graduate degree and I noticed that some of the host agencies listed fellowship work that would be great experience for a new environmental lawyer: analyzing jurisdictional issues under sea level rise, working on every aspect of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), attending legislative hearings and forums, informing state permitting processes, and facilitating public participation. Some of the host agencies interpret and carry out state and federal laws, engage in rulemaking, bring enforcement actions, and get sued – I figured there would be no better way to learn administrative and environmental law than from the inside.
At the fellowship interviews, many more host agencies than I predicted were excited about the prospect of having a lawyer as a fellow. They were interested in my legal training because so much of their work involves understanding policy and legal processes and concepts that it made sense to hire someone who already views the world from those perspectives. Viewed against my original judgments from the fellowship descriptions, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of opportunity available to a new lawyer through the Sea Grant Fellowship Program. Whereas I thought that my background and goals might be an appropriate fit for only one or two of the fellowship positions, I identified many that I thought would help me develop my ideal and specific legal career.
As a fellow with the California State Lands Commission, I am developing expertise that will make me a more marketable attorney. I am already developing expertise in the process and nuances of CEQA. I have seen the influence of the public at agency meetings and legislative forums. I wrote internal memoranda for our attorneys and scientists on cutting-edge CEQA and statutory interpretation issues. I am preparing a presentation on aquaculture permitting that I will deliver at a conference. All these and other projects are helping me to develop a concrete skill set that I will be able to carry forward into permanent future jobs, whether as an attorney or policy-focused staff.
As I alluded to above, a benefit unique to the Sea Grant Fellowship is that it gives new attorneys the opportunity to explore whether they would like to pursue a policy-based position or an attorney position after the fellowship. I get the opportunity to work on legal and policy projects, work with attorneys and scientists, and see the day-to-day work of attorneys and non-legal staff. Simultaneously, I am developing knowledge and skills that will be relevant regardless of whether I choose to pursue a legal career or a policy-focused career. This flexibility and opportunity for reflection on my ideal career is an easily overlooked benefit of the Sea Grant Fellowship, but one which I highly value and think should appeal to law students considering public-sector law and/or policy work.
Written by Lauren Bernadett