Harvard's Environmental Law Review: A Small Community with an Independent Spirit

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In 1976, six years after the first annual Earth Day put environmental issues on the map; the Harvard Environmental Law Review (ELR) was founded at Harvard Law School. ELR has published two issues a year ever since — one in the winter and one in the spring — on environmental topics ranging from land use to the control of toxic substances; from governmental regulation to the use of energy and other natural resources; and from air, water, and noise pollution to the newest environmental technologies.

The most recent issue includes articles about the chemical compound methyl tertiary-butyl ether; the preservation of natural resources; the law behind Environmental Protection Agency enforcement actions, written by environmental law professors at top schools; as well an examination of water trusts written by a graduate student in environmental science, policy, and management. The issue also contains eight case comments on recent environment-related Supreme Court rulings written by law students; indeed, one of the things that help ELR stand out among its peers is its dedication to publishing the work of students. Each summer the journal sponsors a writing competition, and the winner's article gets published in the following winter's issue.

The journal has an advisory board composed of leaders in the environmental community, including Barry Breen of the EPA, James P. Leape of the Packard Foundation, and professors at top institutions including Richard Lazarus from Georgetown.

What makes ELR unique at Harvard is that it does its work without full-time faculty support: Harvard Law School does not have any permanent environmental law professors. This means that the most environmentally minded students sometimes choose other law schools and ELR loses out. Still, even without permanent faculty help and competition from peer institutions for potential staff members, the journal continues to survive and thrive.

ELR is one of the smaller journals on the Harvard campus — Harvard's 11 specialty journals are open to the entire student body, so there is a lot of competition — but is known on campus for its relatively laid back attitude and high rate of student satisfaction. Its staff retention rate — on a campus where a good number of students join journals during their first year (1L) for resume purposes and then leave once the second-year (2L) interview season has passed — is "spectacular compared to the other specialty journals," according to third-year law student (3L) and editor-in-chief Read Porter because "people at ELR like each other and hang out together." In fact, 2Ls occasionally leave the journals they worked on as 1Ls and come to ELR at the start of the 2L year, despite the pressures of interview season taking up time and energy.

Porter says the high staff retention rate and overall satisfaction with the journal is because ELR is "actually a community. We care about the staff and want them to enjoy their journal experience. We train them well and take pride in their achievements. We also let our staff be as involved as they desire. They know there's always a place for them at ELR, no matter what they're looking to do." In addition, a number of 1Ls who make the prestigious (and highly selective) Harvard Law Review each spring come from the ranks of ELR, a testament to the way they train their staff and give them the opportunity to gain real experience during the 1L year. While some journals on the Harvard campus are so large and bureaucratic that students don't have the chance to grow their skills and increase their involvement each semester, ELR is nimble enough to move people up the ranks quickly, as they show the ability and interest.

ELR sponsors speakers and events each year with the Environmental Law Society on campus, trying its best to create an environmental community despite the lack of faculty support and the stiff competition from other journals. But because of its collegial spirit and camaraderie among the staff, ELR has lasted for almost 30 years, with what looks like clear skies — and articles about how to keep them that way — up ahead.

Harvard Law School.


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