Spotlight: Elizabeth Hubert, J.D. | Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic
Contributed by Julian McCall on September 14, 2021.
The Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at the Washington University School of Law is one of the most unique programs in the country. Undergraduate and graduate students from many academic disciplines work alongside law students and faculty experts on real cases affecting real people in our community. We sat down with program director Elizabeth Hubertz for a lighthearted and interesting conversation about the clinic. Professor Hubertz is a former civil rights litigator who has been practicing environmental law for over a decade. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell us more about the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic?
The Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic is a pro bono law practice handling environmental and public health cases. Undergraduate students serve as student-consultants on teams alongside law students working on cases. These are real cases with real clients facing environmental or public health challenges, like the construction of a large coal-waste landfill in their neighborhood or seeing their favorite fishing or swimming site covered with algae. It is a great opportunity for law students to gain real-world experience, and for students considering law school to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of practicing law, and for anyone who wants to find out how government works (or doesn’t) and why issues like climate change are so tough.
Our interdisciplinary nature and in-house expertise gives us an advantage over regular law firms. We have faculty experts–environmental scientist Kenneth Miller, environmental engineer Peter Goode, and lawyer Tara Rocque–who work alongside our undergraduate student-consultants and law students on our cases. Working together is great and it’s very useful for students going into a world where teamwork is a necessary skill.
What is the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic up to these days?
We are very excited about our Environmental Justice program. In 2019 we released an Environmental Justice report, which was the first report to view St. Louis from an environmental justice perspective. On behalf of our clients, Sierra Club, Arch City Defenders, Dutchtown South Community Corporation, and Action St. Louis, we researched environmental problems that people face due to their race. This work has been very exciting and we are now able to offer actionable policy recommendations.
We have also been working on a vacancy-related project, which is a big environmental problem in St. Louis. Hyper-vacancy is a negative feedback loop where uncared-for houses can literally fall apart, pushing neighbors out of the neighborhood. It’s a terrible cycle and we’ve been working on litigation to stop it from happening for the past few years along with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. We also do plenty of traditional pollution cases and a number of water cases. The clinic has spent more than 15 years working for better clean water laws in Missouri.
The students are the most rewarding part of the clinic because it’s a great opportunity. Lawyers traditionally learn by fire–they go to court and make mistakes in front of a room full of people. You learn quickly that way, but it’s not the best emotionally speaking. I think being on a team and having access to experienced people is a much better way to learn.
Why do you think Environmental Law is important?
Environmental law can help slow down the rate of climate change and to mitigate harm. Whether you like it or not, our climate is changing and will continue to change. The most vulnerable people will feel the worst effects and we need to have a plan to handle it. We can use litigation to target the worst offenders, and we have a number of cases against coal plants. However, we can’t sue the climate and make it stop changing, so litigation can’t be our only response.
Any final words?
Unfortunately, my generation didn’t do a great job of protecting the environment. However, I’m always impressed by WashU students. If anybody can solve climate change, it’s going to be you all.