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Through new Texas A&M legal clinic, students explore implications of environmental law

The Texas A&M University School of Law in downtown Fort Worth, pictured in March 2021.
Rodger Mallison
Fort Worth Report)
The Texas A&M University School of Law in downtown Fort Worth, pictured in March 2021.

Thanks to a new environmental and natural resources systems clinic launched this spring, students like Varnadoe have the chance to take their interest in environmental law to the next level.

Growing up in southeast Ohio, Haley Varnadoe always felt a pull to the legal field. Her hometown of Marietta felt the impact of chemical contamination documented in “Dark Waters,” the 2019 film portraying the lives of residents who contracted deadly illnesses from a nearby DuPont manufacturing facility.

“I was interested in environmental justice from a really young age,” Varnadoe said. “I took a few side-steps along the way, but I always found my way back into wanting to be a lawyer.”

Varnadoe’s interest in environmental law drew her to Texas A&M University’s School of Law, which offers an energy, environmental and natural resource systems program. Through their coursework, students can delve deeper into issues surrounding water pollution, land use and the oil and gas industry.

Aside from a similar UT-Austin course, Texas A&M is one of the state’s only law schools to offer an environmental law clinic, said Sara Thornton, who co-teaches the class with professor Gabriel Eckstein. Eckstein, an expert in international water law and policy, serves as director of Texas A&M’s environmental law program.

The idea for the clinic was born out of Eckstein’s capstone class, which allowed students to produce legal recommendations for real-life clients as their final project.

Capstone courses are a rarity at law schools, Eckstein said, and he realized the class would be more helpful to students if it included the practical experience that comes with a formal clinic. Law schools are great at teaching theory and case law, Eckstein said, but graduates need another set of skills to be courtroom ready.

“My capstone was functioning like a clinic, minus the skills component,” Eckstein said. “We weren’t really teaching them the skills of how to talk to clients. We saw real value in taking that extra step and saying: ‘Let’s ratchet it up and make an effort to teach them: How do you speak to the client? How do you interview?’”

After setting up the clinic with associate dean Luz E. Herrera, Eckstein reached out to Thornton, an Austin-based water lawyer with the firm Lloyd Gosselink Rochell & Townsend, P.C., about co-teaching the course.

Thornton is also one of Eckstein’s former students from his days as a professor at Texas Tech’s law school. Eckstein’s plan to marry the classroom experience with the day-to-day experiences of advising a client convinced Thornton, who taught her first Texas A&M law course in spring 2021, to say: “Sign me up.”

“It seemed like a great opportunity for me to grow as an attorney as well, because it helps me hone my skills with the individuals I work with,” Thornton said. “It isn’t a one-sided learning experience on behalf of the students. The professors definitely get a lot out of it.”

Members of the clinic focus on legal issues, such as compliance with environmental regulations, and take on a single client every spring semester. The class – which can range from five to eight students – doesn’t handle litigation but can’t discuss details of its work due to attorney-client privilege.

The lessons learned in the course go beyond the specifics of the legal issues students explored, Thornton said.

“When you’re just taking coursework, it’s not well understood the level of stress that’s higher when you’re dealing with the client,” she said. “There was plenty of focus on time management, not just in terms of getting work done, but in establishing work-life balance and mental health, particularly post-pandemic.”

The complexity of environmental law is tough to fit into a 12-week clinic, Eckstein said. Students have to meet the client, conduct research, arrange meetings with experts, conduct site visits and more.

For Varnadoe, who participated in a different clinic last year, the environmental program was entirely different. Varnadoe was accustomed to working with several clients on specific issues and wrapping up the case in a short time frame.

“Being able to cover a lot of ground with one consistent client was really beneficial and applicable to the real practice of law, where you have established clients,” Varnadoe, who graduates next month, said. “Developing those teamwork skills and collaboration between all of our different schedules and having client meetings all the time over the course of the 12-week semester was a lot of fun.”

The clinic is open to taking on all types of clients, including corporations and government agencies, Eckstein said.

“We’re not a ‘tree-hugging’ focused clinic,” he said. “We really try to be at the very center of the road. We want to work with the private sector, the public sector, with municipalities and so on, because our job is not to achieve a particular outcome unless it’s a particular outcome that the client wants … Every time, it could be somebody different.”

In the future, Eckstein – who argued on behalf of Bolivia’s water rights in front of the International Court of Justice earlier this month – would love students to tackle international environmental law, if they can find a topic to fit into the semester.

Mostly, he wants students to leave the course feeling like they are prepared to hit the ground running in their first law firm job.

“When they go to a job interview or go out into the real world, they can say: ‘I’m not just book smart, I actually got to work on this case. I did these kinds of legal analyses, this kind of legal research, for a real life project,’” Eckstein said. “These are the kinds of skills that they’re going to have to learn on the job. Now, the employer is going to be more likely to say: ‘Come on board.’”