By Andrew Cohen
Some people meander unwittingly into their eventual profession. Others, like Claudia Polsky ’96, zoom down a clear path that seems almost predestined.
For Polsky, that path has led her back to Berkeley Law. Passionate about the environment and America’s landscape since childhood—where she felt like a fish out of water growing up in Manhattan—she has been named Director of the school’s new Environmental Law Clinic.
“My dream was to be the first the female Secretary of the Interior, but someone beat me to it,” Polsky said with a laugh. “Launching this clinic is an amazing opportunity. It allows me to bridge vocation and avocation, work with incredibly smart and dedicated students, and confront vital issues.”
For most of the past 15 years, Polsky served as a deputy attorney general at the California Department of Justice, where she became a go-to litigator on high-level environmental cases. She also served briefly as a deputy director in the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). Before that, she worked for the nonprofits Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco and Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, D.C.
Professor Holly Doremus, Berkeley Law’s associate dean of faculty development and research and a co-director of its Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE), said the committee tasked with recruiting a clinic leader was “amazed” at the quality of applicants.
“Within that impressive pool, Claudia stood out,” Doremus said. “Her depth and breadth of environmental law experience are unparalleled, and her enthusiasm for working with students is obvious. She brings to our already strong environmental program special expertise in toxics regulation and invaluable experience in litigation and policy work. We’re thrilled to have her on board.”
Polsky is no stranger to working with law students, spending seven years supervising law clerks at the California Department of Justice and Earthjustice. “It’s incredibly satisfying work,” she said. “Part of my taking this new job involved realizing how much I learn from younger people. They bring new approaches, new legal research tools, savvy social media strategy, and other great qualities.”
New student opportunities
Even without a clinic, Berkeley Law ranks third on the latest U.S. News & World Report list of environmental law programs. Accepted students will now be able to engage in hands-on administrative practice, litigation, and policy analysis.
Polsky identifies three main goals for the clinic: Make students effective and creative environmental lawyers, initiate projects that can make a meaningful difference, and address the environmental legal needs of underserved communities. Early priority areas include climate change mitigation, toxics reduction, equitable access to nature, the human right to water, and green jobs for marginalized communities.
“Being strategic is crucial,” Polsky said. “I don’t want to take on projects that duplicate what other groups are doing, or would only make a marginal difference.”
The clinic will spend the fall in docket planning and student outreach before formally launching in January. Polsky and her colleagues will soon review applications, and give preference to third-year students.
Polsky returned to Berkeley Law many times over the years to lecture on environmental topics, and has worked with the university’s Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and School of Public Health on issues relating to toxic chemical exposure and making consumer products less hazardous. She plans to build on those relationships, and partner with other campus units such as CLEE and the Energy & Resources Group.
Even though Polsky supervised 70 people at DTSC, has two graduate degrees, and was editor-in-chief of Ecology Law Quarterly while at Berkeley Law, she identifies high school and college summer jobs—as a volunteer park ranger—as the best preparation for her new post.
“Every day I had to make a case for why people should care about environmental issues,” said Polsky, who worked in Yosemite National Park, the Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon. “From avid hikers to squirming kids furious that the park didn’t have a soda machine, my message had to resonate broadly so that everyone would be motivated to protect our resources. There are many constituencies in environmental law, and this clinic will seek the best possible strategies to maximize its reach.”