Alumna deploys UF Law skills to rise through ranks of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Published: April 16th, 2012

Category: Feature

Phyllis Harris alum profileAlmost 30 years ago at the University of Florida, one law student embarked on a career of conservation of land, the environment and, eventually, cooking grease.

In July, Phyllis Harris (JD 85) was promoted to senior vice president and chief compliance officer for the largest private employer in the world: retail giant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

Among her duties, Harris oversees a grease recycling program.

“Several years ago, Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiative really led the way for many retailers as a self-sustaining business model,” Harris explained.

Wal-Mart provides grease interceptor maintenance and oil and water separator maintenance for its facilities. Grease trap/interceptors are pretreatment devices designed to remove fats, oils and grease (FOG) in wastewater from food preparation areas and tenant restaurants. The oil and grease portions are recycled at the majority of locations, such as Tire Lube Express Centers, and reused in many beneficial ways, including energy production (anaerobic digestion), boiler fuel, compost material, bio-fuel production and ethanol production. Likewise, plastics are recycled and reused to make products such as dog beds, cat litter pans and hangers. The program has proved successful by generating substantial income and products to offset the cost of environmental services.

Companies “struggle with whether or not sustainability is actually a good business endeavor,” Harris said, but looking at Wal-Mart’s results, “it really is possible to do well while doing good.”

Harris got her start as a $28,000-a-year government attorney straight out of law school.

As a UF Law 3L, she interviewed with the United States Environmental Protection Agency and was hired 18 months later as a part-time staff attorney. Harris worked with the EPA for 19 years and was conferred the Presidential Rank Award by President George W. Bush in 2001. It is the highest award a senior executive branch official can receive.

Harris left the EPA in December 2005 and eventually became vice president of environmental health and safety compliance for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Her duties expanded in 2011 as she became the chief compliance officer responsible for all aspects of compliance including product safety, privacy, employment, and environmental health and safety for thousands of Wal-Mart stores and facilities. These compliance programs include the Global Food Safety Initiative, which requires Wal-Mart suppliers to participate in rigorous audits of their supply chain to ensure that the food is safe, and Wal-Mart’s partnership with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission through the creation of Wal-Mart’s Toy Safety Net program, which has lowered lead levels in children’s jewelry.

Harris also supports UF Law’s Environmental and Land Use Law Program.

“Back in the early to mid-80s there was a very minimal environmental law program at UF,” Harris said. “It was not as big as it is now. I am now fortunate to be on the board for the program and it has come a long way – it has great leadership and a great vision. I think we’ve made some great strides in the environmental programs and the LL.M. program and I’m just proud of it.”

Harris joined Wal-Mart to create a $10,000 fellowship to encourage minorities to pursue environmental law. The fellowship is offered through the land use program.

According to UF Law Professor Mary Jane Angelo, director of the program, the LL.M. program has seen an increase in students and job market success for its graduates. Recent graduates have landed associate jobs at environmental and land use law firms, government agencies, and one former student is now executive director of a nonprofit environmental group. Another UF Law LL.M. graduate is a tenured track professor at another law school.

“The next step,” Harris says, “is getting the program some of that national recognition that it deserves.” UF’s Environmental and Land Use Law Program ranked No. 13 overall and No. 6 among public law schools by U.S. News and World Report in 2011. It now ranks No. 9 overall and No. 5 among public school. Harris thinks it should be ranked even higher.

“While rankings are important, what Florida brings to the table is what students get with faculty,” Harris said. “Students want quality time with professors who are nationally recognized and want the opportunity to study internationally.”

The 2011 Environmental and Land Use Law J.D. Minority Fellowship was awarded to UF Law student Danisa M. Gonzalez who used the money to travel to Costa Rica for a summer placement and project.

Gonzalez externed with the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights, which provides support to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in Costa Rica.

“Phyllis is very supportive of the program – and not just financially,” Angelo said. “It’s great having someone who graduated from our law school who is so successful – she is an inspiration and a great role model for students in the program.” Harris says she is just doing what she loves.

“Find something you are passionate about – that is what has sustained me for as long as I’ve been a lawyer,” Harris said. “It makes your time fly by when you’re able to do something you care about.”

Now, almost 30 years since Harris got her start in environmental law, her 20-year-old daughter is thinking of pursuing a legal career in environmental policy.

“It’s pretty gratifying,” Harris said. “It’s come full circle.”