Dear 1L . . .

You couldn’t have picked a more critical time to come to law school, for the country, the planet, and our future.

Dear 1L:

You’ve gotten to law school at a crucial time for the future of the planet.

The good news is that you’re arriving at a pivotal point when your work as a lawyer can make a big difference. The bad news is that we have a dwindling amount of time to get the situation under control.  You’ll need to plunge right into the issues as a lawyer if you’re going to contribute.

At the end of environmental law courses, I used to tell students about the role they could play over the course of their careers in fixing environmental problems. I’m going to have to change my spiel a little bit.  It’s now too late to prevent a serious amount of climate change.  Avoiding a climate disaster isn’t something today’s students can plan on tackling “over the course of their careers.”  The most critical time will be the next fifteen years, which means you’ll need to get to work pretty quickly.

Why fifteen years?  By then, major economies need to clean up their electric power systems and electrify their transportation systems. There will certainly be continuing challenges, but if we don’t get where we need to be in 2035, we’ll be desperately playing catch-up after that.  So the next fifteen years are crucial.

Fortunately, we’ve begun to lay the foundation for the 2035 goal:

  • The Inflation Reduction Act that passed  this month is a big step forward. It will funnel billions of dollars into clean energy.
  • Most states have renewable energy standards, and the use of renewables is growing almost everywhere.
  • The costs of wind, solar, and battery storage have plunged faster than anyone expected.
  • A dozen  state governments have have deadlines to reach net zero emissions, and some have now set in place detailed plans.
  • Major corporations have been setting carbon targets and demanding to be connected to renewable power generation.
  • The finance sector is starting to take climate risk seriously.

We’ve made real progress but we’re way behind the curve. In the next 15 years, we need to build frantically on this foundation to turn incremental progress into transformative change.

The most obvious way you can contribute is as an environmental or energy lawyer. But there’s a lot that needs to be done beyond those areas:

  • Land use law: There will have to be changes in land use laws to limit sprawl and support public transit. There will have to be changes in building codes to require electrification and energy efficiency.
  • Business Law. There will have to be corporate planning to cut emissions, and climate-related disclosure requirements.  Small businesses are going to be in special need of help to work their way through regulatory requirements.
  • International Law. Obviously, there will also be a lot to do in the international sphere.
  • Social Justice Law: Someone is going to have to represent disadvantaged communities to make sure they aren’t left behind or overburdened.

This isn’t going to be easy. The Supreme Court is the most conservative it has been for almost a century.  Political polarization is continuing to rise, while the upcoming elections are not looking good.  It’s going to take iron determination and creativity to find ways to make progress.  The determination has to come from you, but we’re here to equip you to search out and implement innovative solutions.  Later generations aren’t going to accept as an excuse that we got discouraged because problems seemed too hard to solve.

Those of us who have been around longer aren’t going to be able to just pass the baton to you. There isn’t enough time for you to take on the problem alone. We’re all going to have to work ever harder to make change happen.

What we do together between now and 2035 will determine what your lives look like in 2050 and 2080, and what your children and grandchildren will see in the next century. So grab your books, get yourselves ready, and be prepared to head for the trenches when you graduate. No time to waste!


Note: This is a new and improved version of an open-letter to beginning law students that I first posted in September 2021.

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Reader Comments

9 Replies to “Dear 1L . . .”

  1. Prof. Farber, THANK YOU for your concluding imperative: “We’re all going to have to work ever harder to make change happen.

    What we do together between now and 2035 will determine what your lives look like in 2050 and 2080, and what your children and grandchildren will see in the next century. So grab your books, get yourselves ready, be prepared to head for the trenches when you graduate. No time to waste!” AMEN! Prof. Farber!

    Will UC and other universities around the world also join together today to save the human race because another most disturbing reality is, especially considering climate changes that are already totally out of control today, the Keeling Curve is still far too much out of control in 2022?

    Disasters we are experiencing today are already totally unacceptable and universities around the world must educate and motivate the public around the world to join in.

  2. Dan: Nice sentiment, but your message misses an important point: we must emphasize the placement of environmentally conscious and capable lawyers in private as well as in public practice to assure the implementation of environmentally protective purpose. This means lawyers in BIG LAW as well as generally in practice advising businesses. We will not be able to achieve the necessary progress you so convincingly advocate without strong, smart, dedicated environmental lawyers in business practice.

    1. Dear Barry – I couldn’t agree more. I did mention business law but could have said more about it.

  3. this seems a bit like the boy who cried wolf. The idea that we have to take certain actions by a certain date or we are doomed is really the height of human arrogance. we should certainly take action but our understanding of the earth’s complex climate mechanisms is insufficient to say we have to act by 2035. Your sounding like an Evangelical who is preaching that the end times are near.

  4. Dear Lawrence – Don’t forget that at the end of the story there actually WAS a wolf, but no one listened.
    More seriously, I don’t think there are absolute deadlines, but the longer we wait, the harder the job will be.

  5. Business and investors need to be allowed to make prudent investments based on documented risks. States, such as WV, that require their utilities to continue to burn coal and other states that do not allow their employee retirement funds to disinvest in fossil fuel assets must be sued for their failures as fiduciaries to allow for the protection of employee retirement funds.

  6. Great piece Dan. I shall steal it (with attribution) for my first day of Sustainable Energy Law this semester. Teaching Environmental and Energy Law here in the heart of Appalachia, the barriers to achieving that 2035 goal always seem insurmountable … I couldn’t even tell you where the nearest charging station is, and pro-coal signs continue to dominate the streets.

    BUT, I have noticed a meaningful shift in recent years among the students entering my classroom, as they seem to have an awareness and determination previous incoming classes lacked. Knowing that we will be sending these students back out into their Appalachian community armed with The Law gives me some newfound optimism.

    1. Buzz- It’s great to hear from you and about the attitude of your students. Their work is going to be a key part of the energy transition.

  7. Dear 1L,

    I urge the proverbial 1L to take into consideration the volatility of the cost of a law school and its effect on the current class as compared between Stanford and Berkeley. Although I am limited in my ability to illustrate such a scenario, there are students who will be most efficient simply by choosing a public school. The increased cost of living and the inevitable tuition hike will move students to choose the more economical scenario. Yet an increase in tuition may not directly correlate to long term success as a lawyer; with that in mind, it should be taken into consideration that the changing climate affects more than just tuition. Please do not raise tuition and housing. Thank you.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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