Q and A with Clare Lakewood

Undertaking a Master of Laws at Melbourne Law School was a transformational experience for Clare Lakewood, helping her launch an international career in environmental law.

Clare Lakewood

After moving to California in 2013, the public interest environmental lawyer worked as a research associate with the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, before starting as a staff attorney in the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. She also attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last year.

Here Ms Lakewood provides advice for students who aspire to work in public interest law in Australia, and overseas.

Can you tell us about your role at the Climate Law Institute?

The Climate Law Institute was established within the Center for Biological Diversity to confront climate change. Most of my work is focused on ensuring that government agencies, at local, state and federal level, comply with the law when regulating or approving projects that enable or increase fossil fuel production.

I'm also involved in our work on international climate change law, from the perspective of ensuring the United States commits to action at a level commensurate with its historic responsibility for climate change. Attending the Paris Agreement negotiations in December last year was a pretty big highlight!

What is it like to work overseas?

I would recommend working overseas to anyone who might be interested. Knowing that I've managed to qualify, and work, as a lawyer in a foreign jurisdiction gives me confidence that I can take on challenges I otherwise might have shied away from. 

Working in a different jurisdiction has honed my high-level litigation skills. Although civil litigation follows the same basic format, the procedural differences, and the subtle cultural differences, have caused me to step back and carefully consider strategic options at every stage. Working overseas has also given me opportunities that I would not have had in Australia. Public interest litigation is a more established field in the United States, with a larger community of lawyers working in the area, and more extremely experienced lawyers to learn from. 

After graduating from Melbourne Law School you moved to California. What strategies did you use to help find employment there?

I didn't properly appreciate all the networks I had in Australia – all the people I went through law school with, and lawyers I worked with or opposite – until they were all gone!

Ultimately, I asked an American professor whose unit I had taken while studying at Melbourne Law School, Professor Richard Revesz, if he could introduce me to anyone. Not only did he do that, he offered me a position as a research assistant! 

On his advice, I also asked Melbourne University if they knew of any law graduates in California that might be willing to meet for a coffee. Graduates were really willing to go out of their way to make time to talk. I had many “informational interviews.” My goal for each one was just to be given one more contact, someone else to have coffee with. That took a lot of the pressure off me, and I think it’s something people feel they can easily give you.

Clare Lakewood in San Francisco

What advice would you give to law students who aspire to work in public interest law, either in Australia or internationally? For example, when you were a student what do you wish someone had told you?

That jobs in public interest law exist! I very nearly didn't become a lawyer at all, because I didn't feel that commercial law or community legal services was for me, and I didn't know what else was out there.

Don't undervalue other legal experience you might have. I didn't actually graduate thinking public interest environmental law was an area in which I'd practice. I worked for the State Solicitor's Office in Western Australia until I moved overseas, and really enjoyed that. Although there was limited subject-matter overlap with my current work, the time in the courtroom I got as a government lawyer was of interest to the Center.

Don't be too shy to reach out to people. I was amazed by how generous people were with their time and their willingness to make introductions.

If you know that there is another country in which you want to work, take as many relevant units as you can with lecturers from that country. They'll form part of your network there.

How did your LLM from Melbourne Law School impact your career?

I wouldn't have my current job without my LLM from Melbourne Law School! The last unit I took was on US environmental law that was taught by Professor Revesz, the Dean Emeritus at New York University School of Law. He offered me my first job in the United States, working as his research associate. I'm confident that this position, and his reference, was a significant factor in convincing my organisation that I could do the job.

What’s next for you?

Ultimately my goal is to bring back to Australia what I've learned about public interest environmental work in the United States. Australia has one of the world's major biodiversity hotspots, and incredibly unique and special ecosystems. But it is going to be one of the countries most impacted by climate change, and is far behind the United States in dealing with environmental justice issues.

There are cultural and institutional factors that make public interest environmental litigation more challenging in Australia, but we are going to need every tool in the toolbox to try and protect the environment and the health of our communities.

– As told to Roselina Press