In this Greentech Media series, we’re asking people with jobs in cleantech — from installing solar panels, to permitting wind projects, to promoting building energy efficiency software — to tell us what they really do all day.
We hope this series can serve as a source of information and inspiration for recent graduates, cleantech professionals planning their careers or anyone who wants to transition into the industry. We also hope it makes cleantech opportunities more visible and accessible to those groups, including women and people of color, who are underrepresented in our growing industry.
What do lawyers at major environmental nonprofits do?
Large environmental nonprofits can play a key role in shaping policy and regulation around cleantech.
Kit Kennedy, senior director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), spends her time promoting renewable and sustainable solutions to problems that face the public.
“A lot of my time is spent on outreach to federal and state government, going to public meetings and sitting down with high-level government officials and advocating for where NRDC wants them to go,” said Kennedy.
Lawyers at environmental nonprofits typically use their knowledge of the energy regulatory landscape to advance the goals of the nonprofit where they work.
These goals may include increasing the penetration of renewable energy, lowering regulatory hurdles for cleantech, grid resiliency, protecting the natural environment and advocating for customers.
In her role, Kennedy helps NRDC shape state climate and clean energy strategies around energy efficiency, renewables, clean vehicles and fuels, and other climate priorities.
Being a lawyer for an environmental nonprofit can also involve advocating on behalf of other nonprofits and community groups.
Chinyere Osuala is a senior associate attorney for the clean energy program at Earthjustice. Osuala represents environmental groups, communities and nonprofits in state public utility commissions in electric and gas utility proceedings.
“The first part of a case requires a lot of logistical planning and parsing out the client issues that need to be addressed. We must also ensure that the case aligns with Earthjustice’s goals,” said Osuala. She aims to promote clean energy solutions including distributed energy resources and energy efficiency. Osuala also works on strategies to influence customer behavior while maintaining or lowering rates.
Once she has established the end goal of a case, Osuala coordinates expert testimony, cross-examinations and briefings on the case. Finally, she advises the public utility commission on the decisions Earthjustice thinks should be made.
What skills does a lawyer at an environmental nonprofit need?
Environmental law requires a range of skills, from technical to interpersonal.
“The most important thing is to understand the legal and regulatory policies underpinning energy systems and how to change them,” said Kennedy. “A scientific, technological and analytic background is important, as is having advocacy and campaign skills.”
Tenacity and persistence are also important qualities for lawyers at environmental nonprofits, since their efforts may not always pay off immediately.
Kennedy used the example of offshore wind, which NRDC has been advocating for since the first proposed U.S. offshore project. Partially as a result of their persistence, Kennedy notes that offshore wind is now poised for dramatic expansion.
Chinyere finds that people skills are key in her position. “For clients who are not energy experts, my job is about making them feel comfortable enough to enter these wonky proceedings and explain things in layman’s terms,” she said.
Chinyere also cited collaboration as an important skill in public interest law. “You must know how to talk to ratepayer advocates, utilities and other stakeholders. These types of proceedings are not a regular legal case where it’s just one party against another.”
Kennedy echoed Chinyere’s point on collaboration. “Understanding the importance of partnerships and campaign advocacy is key. We won’t succeed just by being smart people in a room. We need to build the environmental movement and expand partnerships.”
What might people not know about being an environmental lawyer?
Environmental lawyers don’t necessarily need to study energy and environmental topics in order to pursue the career path.
Chinyere originally set out to do criminal law. Kennedy also didn’t initially envision a career in climate and clean energy but came to see energy as a way to achieve environmental and social justice goals.
Those interested in advocacy also may not know that law school is one of many paths to a satisfying career. A law degree is not a prerequisite for high-level advocacy work in energy.
Kennedy recommends that young professionals consider the decision to go to law school carefully, and not to enroll unless they want to practice law.
“There are many more options today than when I went to graduate school,” said Kennedy. “Universities offer law and environmental management, policy or science skills. Formal training in science and law is helpful, but I was able to learn the science and technology through my work.”
Chinyere agreed, noting, “There are many tools to advocate for 100% clean energy across the country, and choosing to litigate is just one of these tools.”
For those who do pursue a law degree, Chinyere suggested studying general administrative law as a stepping stone to a career in energy law, as administrative law is directly relevant to the regulatory issues that come up in energy.
What’s your favorite thing about your role?
“As I learned more about energy and its impact on the environment and people’s lives, I felt compelled [to focus on energy]” said Kennedy. “It’s endlessly fascinating and there are always opportunities to learn a huge amount.”
One exciting part of advocacy work at a nonprofit is how hard work can pay off in concrete ways. Kennedy is proud of her team’s work around offshore wind.
“I worked with wind developers in the U.S. and Europe and spent a lot of time talking to federal and state officials about the potential for offshore wind,” said Kennedy.
“At first, they thought we were crazy, but we kept at it, and eventually we helped to get the Block Island project built off Rhode Island. Now, offshore wind in the U.S. is poised to become a major industry as states along the East Coast are looking into it as a carbon-reduction strategy.”
Chinyere shared a hard-won success around a general rate proceeding in New York in 2017-2018. Earthjustice stepped in when a New York utility had wanted to raise rates for customers.
After “months of negotiation and a lot of hard work by a lot of parties,” Chinyere said, her team worked to get the commission to reject an increase in charges and even ended up reducing charges for customers in the state.
What barriers might stop someone from succeeding in environmental law?
Legal education is quite expensive, which may pose a barrier for many. Typical programs have a price tag of several hundred thousand dollars.
“To people who are interested in advocacy and public interest, I would say to these people finish your undergraduate degree and get involved in groups that are doing this work on the ground, like small nonprofits, communities or trade groups. From there, you can decide if you want to pursue more education,” said Chinyere.
Kennedy identified diversity and coalition-building as a key area where environmental nonprofits and legal teams need to grow.
“[At NRDC] we have an increasing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, working in a respectful way with environmental justice groups,” said Kennedy.
Gender imbalance also persists, but women are becoming better represented in the industry than they were in the past, notes Kennedy.
“There has also been a huge shift in terms of female leaders in the industry and the environmental movement as a whole,” said Kennedy. “I remember often being the only woman in the room, and now, of course, dozens of amazing women and women of color in the industry are leading the movement. This is a major transformation.”
Which jobs in cleantech and renewable energy would you like to know more about? Do you know someone with an interesting job in the field? Drop us a note below. This series is supported by WAGE, an initiative of Wood Mackenzie and GTM.
Lindsay Cherry is a solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie.
All those quoted in this piece represent themselves only and not their organizations or employers.