U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Appeals Court Judge Catherine McCabe was the most recent guest in the Environmental Law and Policy Program’s speaker series, which focuses on careers in environmental law.

McCabe discussed her career as a pioneer in the field of environmental law, beginning in the 1970s, just as environmental laws were first being enacted. McCabe used her experience, first as a private lawyer and later as a federal attorney and judge, to advise students on their future.

“One of my favorite things to do now that I am in the later stages of my career is to talk to those who are in the early, growing up stages and seeing what’s on your mind and where you think you might want to go,” McCabe said.

McCabe didn’t only practice environmental law — she actually helped create the field.

“I went to law school back in the 1970s to be an environmental lawyer,” McCabe said of her time at Columbia University Law School. “The only problem was, when I got there, there was only one course on environmental law. It had hardly been invented.”

After gaining experience in other areas of law, McCabe worked on a landmark environmental case involving chemical dumping in the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. She also participated in the creation of The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act — a law passed by Congress in 1980 establishing regulations for chemical and hazardous waste management.

McCabe worked for 22 years in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and served as Deputy Chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section from 2001 to 2005.

Starting in 2005, she served for seven years as Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. She currently serves on the EPA’s Court of Appeals as one of three judges.

“You are in all sorts of different stages,” McCabe said. “Wondering, A, whether you want a career in environmental law, and B, If you want one, how do you get one.”

After tracing her long career path, McCabe opened the floor up to questions from the audience, which included a mix of first, second and third-year law students.

Law student Megan Williams said she came to the seminar to hear about McCabe’s rich experience in the field.

“I wanted to hear a little bit more about careers in environmental law and I know that Catherine has had a really amazing career, or careers, so that’s what I was hoping to hear about,” Williams said.

Because of the recent difficulty law graduates have finding employment, many students attended to hear more about the realities of obtaining a job in the field of environmental law.

Law student Sam Ellingson, who recently joined the law school’s Environmental Law Society, said she is concerned about the competitiveness of the field.

“I feel like there is a limited amount of jobs in the environmental sphere in general,” Ellingson said, adding that she came to hear advice from McCabe for law graduates who want to work in environmental law.

For students like Ellingson who are worried about job prospects, McCabe advised students to create their own opportunities, as she did.

McCabe pointed out that students now entering the field might have more opportunities since many of her colleagues are nearing retirement.

“What you have to be is proactive,” McCabe said. “To be out there and finding those opportunities because you don’t know when and where they are going to come up.”

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