May 17, 2017

ENVS Blog: From L&C to the Arctic - My path to a career in international environmental law

Rachael Lipinski (’09), a graduate of the Environmental Studies Program at Lewis & Clark College, writes about her time working as an environmental attorney.

Rachael Lipinski ’09

I feel obligated to begin with general words of encouragement about taking time to discover your career path. Admittedly, I’m one of the few (and before any graduating seniors panic, I mean very few) who have always known what I wanted to do. I think I told my parents I wanted to be an environmental attorney saving whales in the sixth grade. I’ve heard the stories; most will change their mind about what they want to do. And as the years went by, I tried to stay open to the possibility. Yet, here I am. Eight years out from my Lewis & Clark experience—and still dead set on applying legal tools to protecting our ocean and coastal environment.

Currently, I work in the Environmental Law Division for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime and International Law Program. A full year into the position, I’m still amazed at the projects and people I work with here. I serve as our attorney to the Arctic Counsel, and provide legal advice on a number of issues from Endangered Species Act compliance to the Atomic Energy Act with a hefty amount of oil and hazardous substance response in between. One particularly meaningful project for me was serving on the U.S. Delegation for a treaty negotiation with Cuba. I had studied abroad in Havana as an L&C undergrad. The opportunity to return on official government business to work to protect the natural environment that had such an impact on me as a student was priceless.

I feel good about the work that I and my colleagues do every day in order to ensure compliance with environmental requirements within our own agency and by taking enforcement action against those who harm the environment. And yet, these are tumultuous times for an environmentalist. To reference a couple of old course titles, sometimes the environmental problems can feel so immense, it can be easy to lose focus on the environmental solutions. I feel heartened to know that many alumni and current students continue to fight the good fight to protect our environment.

As much as I’d love to just list all the cool things I get to work on (and mind you no one likes to talk shop as much as a DC attorney), I feel obligated to end by providing some advice to current students and recent and not so recent graduates. Extern, intern, volunteer, work part- or full- time—getting experience doing the thing you want to do is incredibly helpful when it comes to actually getting a position in that field.