Environmental Law Clinic Puts Students to Work

Roger Reynolds (right of screen), students, and staff attorneys

The Clean Water Act was on the syllabus one recent Friday morning for University of Connecticut School of Law students enrolled in the Environmental Law Clinic class. But they weren’t learning about technology-based effluent limitations and combined sewer overflows in a UConn classroom. They were gathered around the conference table in Save the Sound’s New Haven office. That’s because the law clinic, created in 2005 by Save the Sound’s senior legal counsel, Roger Reynolds, moves quickly from theory to practice. Within two hours, students were hunkered down at their office desks, applying their learning to real environmental projects.

“It’s very practical,” said Reynolds, who has been teaching the Environmental Law Clinic classes and supervising students since the clinic’s inception. “Everything they’re learning about, they’re applying to cases in the clinic.”

Each semester the Environmental Law Clinic enrolls four UConn students, who spend two hours in the classroom every other week, plus 12 hours a week working on their projects, including one full day in Save the Sound’s office. Over the years, the 150 or so students who have come through the law clinic have “pretty much done everything,” Reynolds said, from writing appellate briefs to drafting citizen suit enforcement actions to conducting research and investigations. One student wrote the initial brief on the Oswegatchie Hills, a land preservation project that continues today. Another conducted a Clean Water Act investigation on a chemical spill that turned into a criminal case with a conviction. Senator Richard Blumenthal—then CT’s attorney general—called the resulting series of cases the most significant enforcement event of the decade. The details of law clinic work are confidential, but this semester’s students are researching PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances), monitoring Clean Water Act enforcement on Long Island, and writing a CT Environmental Policy Act primer to help individuals and land trusts intervene in local land use proceedings.  

On this particular Friday morning, the class began with rounds, during which each of the four students reported on how their work was progressing and took suggestions and direction from Reynolds as well as Staff Attorney Kat Fiedler and Peter B. Cooper Legal Fellow Chris Kelly, who offer additional support and guidance as well as delivering one lecture each.

In the second hour, Reynolds delivers a lecture on a topic relevant to the students’ work. “We could do a whole course on the Clean Water Act,” he said as they reviewed a slide on terminology. “Can anyone tell me what ‘water quality standards’ are?” Over the course of the hour, Reynolds covered not only key terms but also the Soundkeeper model of “find it, fix it”; a map of dead zones in the western Sound and how much the problem has improved due to Clean Water Act actions; where in the watershed deadly nitrogen comes from (as far away as Quebec, but mostly NY and CT); the problem with sewage treatment plants and the three-pronged approach being taken to fixing them; and more.

Second-year student Justin Glaser comes to the law clinic from a previous career in real estate, where he saw the financial benefit of using alternative energy and energy-efficient products in the buildings he managed. Pursuing a law degree has been a longtime dream, he said, and he’s learning much more about fundamental environmental issues, such as PFAS and its detrimental effects. “There’s a lot of practical applications [of environmental law] that people aren’t knowledgeable about,” Glaser said. “It’s something that I thought would be interesting to me, to broaden my horizons as both a potential attorney and as a person.”

Ernie Andreoli, also in his second year, was influenced at an early age by his grandmother, who taught him about the environmental and consumer protection movements. “Her love and teachings meant a lot to me, and that’s why I really wanted to do this,” Andreoli said of the law clinic. He’s also learning a lot—including how collaborative the non-profit setting is. Instead of the silos he expected to see, Andreoli has observed the interactions of Save the Sound’s legal team with UConn’s environmental sciences department, CT Sea Grant, and other organizations all working together in order to “keep on pushing for the environmental movement and tackle some of the serious obstacles that we face.”

The work of law clinic students benefits Save the Sound not only directly but also indirectly, helping to train the next generation of environmental lawyers. Students who have come through the law clinic have gone on to found their own nonprofit organizations, serve in government, and work for private law firms or for corporations as in-house counsel. “Training environmental advocates and educating lawyers about the issues and making them partners and friends is important,” Reynolds said. Citing the adage “if you want to learn something, teach it,” he added that teaching the law clinic makes him a better lawyer. “Getting a lot of perspectives is hugely valuable,” he said.  “You continually look at your cases through other people’s eyes. I invite real, vigorous feedback… If three out of the four students say, ‘Wow, this case sounds like a dog,’ I might or might not do it, but I’d better figure out why they think it’s a dog and why the judge isn’t going to think that same thing.”

Before joining Save the Sound, Reynolds clerked for Justices Palmer and Callahan on the CT Supreme Court and worked in the office of the Attorney General for the State of Connecticut, where he was lead counsel on numerous environmental, consumer protection, and antitrust cases. He knows firsthand what it takes to become a successful attorney whose client, ultimately, is the environment. “It takes a certain kind of person who’s committed to what they’re doing,” Reynolds said. “You’ve got to love the job. You don’t get paid as much as you do in the private sector, there are long hours, but for the right people, it’s great work.”

For Glaser, Andreoli, and their classmates, this semester’s law clinic is a chance to learn not only about environmental law but also whether they’re “the right people” for this challenging work.

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