Conservation Clinic offers real-world training, experience
By Francie Weinberg
Looking for a chance to work with clients and make a difference in the world? Housed at the law school’s Center for Governmental Responsibility, the University of Florida Levin College of Law Conservation Clinic offers both law and graduate students the opportunity to work on cutting-edge environmental and land use law and policy issues.
The Conservation Clinic provides upper-level environmental law students and graduate students in conservation-related fields with exposure to environmental and land use professional practice, applied research and public policy analysis under the supervision of Professor Thomas Ankersen, the clinic’s faculty adviser.
Interested students need to have completed three semesters and can earn up to six credits in two semesters. Of the students who apply, Ankersen accepts between nine to 12 students per semester. While most accepted students are involved in the Environmental and Land Use Law Program, students in other areas can apply and can benefit from the clinic. The clinic emphasizes applied research and writing as well as speaking skills, and the ability to work with Ph.D. and other graduate students is a unique aspect of the Conservation Clinic.
After graduating from UF Law in 1986, Ankersen practiced in an environmental law firm in Miami for five years. He then spent a year with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund where he developed an interest in international law that brought him back to UF Law and a series of projects in Latin America, India and Africa.
Ankersen started the clinic in 2002 when faculty saw the need to expand its Environmental and Land Use curriculum and students were seeking skills training in the area. Over the past 10 years, the program has grown exponentially and the clinic is an essential part. The program is now fifth among public colleges and ninth overall, according to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings.
“Anything that you can do to demonstrate that you have real world experience is going to help you get a job,” Ankersen said. “If you’re working on projects that require you to understand an area of law Florida’s water law and do an analysis for a client that leads to a change in the law, or even an internal decision that client makes, that’s something you’ll do when you’re practicing law. That’ll definitely be recognized by a potential employer – in addition to providing a public service.”
So many people are interested in the clinic’s services that Ankersen said they’ve had to turn projects away. He picks projects based on what he thinks students will get value out of, whether their work will have an impact, and if the client would be able to accomplish its goals without the help of the clinic.
Past projects have included drafting local ordinances and comprehensive plan amendments, obtaining environmental permits for coastal restoration and preparing contracts for environmental service payments. Clinic clients include the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education and the Blue Water Initiative. Occasionally students have opportunities to work on international law projects or with local governments.
Chelsea Sims (3L) began her work in the Conservation Clinic while studying abroad in Costa Rica. Her first project was for The Nature Conservancy, where she worked to help ensure that environmental service concessions benefit indigenous communities.
Sims then took on the Blue Water Intitiative, Inc., a reef restoration and conservation nonprofit, whose main project is removing tires from the Osborne Reef off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale. This reef was home to more than 1 million tires that were dumped in the 1970s in an attempt to create an artificial reef. Years of currents and hurricanes have become dislodged tires from the main tire field and they are destroying real reefs by bumping into and crushing them.
Sims helped the Blue Water Initiative obtain the necessary state and federal permits to remove the loose tires and dispose of them. She went with Blue Water Initiative members on their first dive to remove about 100 tires. The group no longer needs the clinic’s services, but asked Sims to remain on its board of directors to help with future legal issues.
“The clinic taught me real-world skills that cannot be learned through lectures and books,” Sims said. “It introduced me to a great network of people in the field I want to work in when I graduate, and it allowed me to work on a range of projects so I could discover what areas I would like to work in when I have my own career.”
The Environmental and Land Use Law Program, the Conservation Clinic and the Public Interest Environmental Conference all represent the College of Law’s commitment to developing the skills of tomorrow’s environmental lawyers to face tomorrow’s environmental problems.