Environmental Law Center, clinic celebrate first five years

 The first five years of a new business venture typically are known as the “survival years” – a time when a great many such ventures stumble and fall.

But, against all odds, the first five years for the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and its partner, Wayne State University Law School’s Transnational Environmental Law Clinic, have proved to be a success.

The center and the clinic were founded by Wayne Law Associate Professor Noah Hall, an environmental law expert, as a part of a sabbatical project in 2008. He got the nonprofit center going that year, and the clinic began at Wayne Law in fall 2009.

“I recognized the need for both a public-interest environmental law group in Michigan to do work that wasn’t getting done and the need for an educational opportunity for students, as well as a place to intern or do work after they graduate,” Hall said. “We wanted a separate entity to make it clear that the clinic is an education opportunity and a teaching vehicle for students and the center is a public-interest environmental law firm to represent community organizations and individuals – not for money or claims for damages but to improve environmental policy and ensure that laws are enforced. The public-interest environmental law community can be pretty tough to break into.”

Often, organizations such as the center are looking to hire attorneys with at least five years of experience, he said.

“We’d rather be the place where people start with their most creative, fresh ideas,” Hall said.

So, the center broke the mold in that regard. Its staff and board members are mostly freshly minted attorneys who work hand-in-hand with law students. Nor was the founding year a great time to start any sort of business venture in the state.

“We started an organization with no money and no funding out of thin air in Detroit during the downturn when everything was supposedly in recession,” Hall said. “The foundation community was cutting back, and environmental law wasn’t a hot field in Michigan. GLELC is now fully going so well that you can just take it for granted. Everything about the organization has been a spectacular success. We have been an exceptionally effective organization. I guess that’s a lot in five years.”

The credit for that, Hall said, goes mostly to the nearly 100 law students who have participated in the clinic since its inception, bringing their passion and their ideas.

“A lot of times, your creativity and your willingness to try new approaches and challenge existing norms – those are flowing when you’re in law school,” Hall said. “We like to take advantage of that creativity. We were always looking to have it be a place for students to advance their issues and their solutions. We never decided we were going to work on A, B and C issues. We’ve always kept it very open and inclusive and very adaptive to new people coming in with new ideas.”

Among the center’s successful solutions created by law students is Michigan’s Property Assessed Clean Energy Act, which was signed into law in 2010. The legislation is designed to allow property owners to pay for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, such as solar panels, over a number of years as a special assessment on their tax bills.

“Eric Jamison (of Rochester) was a Wayne Law clinic student who helped develop the idea, as well as people in practice,” Hall said. “Eventually, the issue did fantastically, and the legislation was passed.”

Jamison, working as Clean Energy fellow with the center, was the lead drafter of the legislation. He graduated from Wayne Law in 2011 and today is an assistant attorney general in Michigan.

“You can’t separate the success on the issues from the success of the students as they’ve built their careers,” Hall said. “The two have gone hand in hand.”

One of Hall’s students was Nick Schroeck, a 2007 Wayne Law alumnus, who went on to become executive director of the center and director of the Wayne Law clinic in 2010.

“Nick was in the very first environmental law class I started teaching,” Hall said. “That was in the fall of 2005.”

Schroeck took more environmental law courses, and Hall soon envisioned his stellar student as the person to succeed him as head of the center.

“When he graduated, I helped place him in a fellowship position with the Great Lakes Commission and then helped him find a position with the National Wildlife Federation, where I had worked before,” Hall said. “I was essentially grooming him for the job at GLELC. I had a sense he’d be really good. So, we brought him on, and we co-taught for a year or so. He was two years out of school, and that was plenty of experience as far as I was concerned. And he’s done exactly as well as I had total confidence he would.”

Under Schroeck’s direction, the center has expanded, hiring additional attorneys, including 2012 Wayne Law alumna Stephanie Karisny, and moving from TechTown in Detroit to new and bigger offices at the Green Garage, 4444 Second Ave.

Hall stays involved with the center as a board member, and he said handing off the leadership to Schroeck was a smooth process.

“Noah has been fantastic to work with,” Schroeck said. “He’s a mentor and an expert that I turn to often for advice. He really let me take the executive director job and run with it without any micromanaging.”

One issue Schroeck is running with these days is working to make sure a new environmental assessment takes place for a $2.7 billion expansion to Interstate 94 in Detroit proposed in the 1990s and due to start in a few years. The Wayne Law clinic and the center are working together with a coalition of community and environmental groups, including MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), a congregation-based Detroit social justice organization, concerned about the plan. The majority of the research has been done by Wayne Law students.

“The law center has provided invaluable assistance to MOSES and the larger collation of community groups concerned about the highway widening,” said Joel Batterman, MOSES policy coordinator. “The students are setting a powerful example for advancing the public interest on behalf of all the people of the metropolitan region, and with their help, we’ll be able to make sure our state’s transportation policies move everyone forward.”