Pro Bono Clearinghouse Series: Community Lawyering for Environmental Justice

Thursday, March 31, 2022

In January, ELI held the first CLE webinar in the new Pro Bono Clearinghouse series, “Community Lawyering for Environmental Justice Part 1: Key Concepts, Skills, and Practice-Oriented Specifics.” The public webinar brought together an engaging panel of justice-oriented attorneys to meaningfully discuss community lawyering. The discussion was moderated by ELI Environmental Justice Staff Attorney Arielle King. Panelists included Lanessa Chaplin, Assistant Director at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Seema Kakade, Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Taylor Lilley, Environmental Justice Staff Attorney at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The event is the first in a series meant to demonstrate how lawyers, communities, and activists can engage in community lawyering and support environmental justice.


King kicked off the webinar by explaining that environmental justice embraces the principle that all people deserve equal access to environmental protection and enforcement. Environmental justice recognizes that this, both historically and currently, is not the case, and communities that receive the least protection and enforcement are experiencing the greatest environmental burdens. King continued by discussing how the legal system has contributed to the historic and current unequal distribution of environmental burden and benefits.

The panelists discussed a range of topics including defining community lawyering for environmental justice, becoming an effective community advocate, and starting a career in community lawyering, based on what they learned from their experiences.

Chaplin began by speaking about the importance of letting communities lead the work, which she said may be counterintuitive to the typical problem-solving approach to lawyering. Drawing from her work with the NYCLU, she stressed that community lawyering doesn’t always involve litigation. Community lawyers use all the tools in their advocacy toolbox. In her experience, community lawyers play the role of policymakers, organizers, and advocates.

Kakade highlighted how building effective relationships with communities requires understanding the place and historic context where people are coming from. Kakade shared her experience running the UMD Environmental Law Clinic, and then brought in two students to speak about how their perspectives on community lawyering has shifted after participating in the clinic. The students spoke about the importance of keeping the bigger picture in mind and relying on the expertise of the community, and the need to adapt.

Lilley centers her community lawyering practice around building authentic relationships with communities. She spoke about Friends of Buckingham v. State Pollution Air Board (2009), a case where the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) was both a party and counsel. Achieving the “gold standard” in both Lilley’s and Chaplin’s minds, the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the Friends of Buckingham and CBF on the grounds of environmental justice claims. The case demonstrated how nonprofits can play a meaningful role in community lawyering.

The webinar is a required component for attorneys to participate in ELI’s Pro Bono Clearinghouse. Launched in February 2022, the Clearinghouse provides a forum to help connect ELI members with communities that need specific legal expertise, non-legal experts, or local counsel. Environmental law clinics without the capacity to take on these environmental justice matters vet the matters and post them to the Clearinghouse. Matters may also come from partnering organizations. To take on environmental pro bono matters, click this link and become part of the team today.

Find this webinar recording and more on the ELI Events page: