Today’s Toughest Dream Job: Environmental Attorney
Janette Brimmer works for the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, where she defends vital regulations that keep our lands healthy
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The lawyers at the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice have been behind countless major environmental legal battles, representing, pro bono, everyone from indigenous nations and local governments to powerhouse environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. So what did Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer think when Trump was elected? “I’m going to be honest,” she says. “I look at the change of administration coming in, and I think, ‘Oh my god. This is going to be really hard.’”
Brimmer’s litigation largely focuses on the Clean Water Act. Along with the rest of Earthjustice’s Pacific Northwest office, she’s spent an outsized amount of time in recent years fighting the coal, oil, and natural gas transportation and infrastructure projects cropping up in the region since North Dakota’s Bakken boom. Despite the major challenges in defending those regulations in the Trump administration, Brimmer remains passionate about her work. “This is a dream job,” says the lifelong outdoors enthusiast. “Who goes to law school and gets to do this?”
Job: Staff attorney at Earthjustice
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin
Current City: Seattle, Washington
Legal Specialties: Clean water; national parks and wilderness protection; coal export terminals.
Weekday Hours: 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. (Unless she’s in court, which happens at least every few months.)
Caseload: Four to five active cases at any given time, plus another five or so on the back burner.
Favorite Flower: Monkshood
Favorite Place to Hike: The North Cascades, with her partner and their dogs. “We prefer less-visited, more-rugged places.”
Major Hobby: Gardening
Hero Environmentalist: Aldo Leopold. (Brimmer went to Aldo Leopold Elementary School as a kid.)
Outdoor Roots and Precocious Activism: “I grew up in a very blue-collar, working-class family. I was the first person to go to college in my family, on either side. My family was into the outdoors: a strong hunting and fishing tradition, a very strong camping tradition. We had this little shack in the woods—really, nothing more than a shack, no plumbing and no lights—that I adored. I spent all my childhood vacations camping. It was just a part of me from day one.
“I was a kid in the 1970s, the environmental decade. I was in school when the first Earth Day happened. Honest to god, when I was in third grade, I organized some of my friends in a sleepover to do anti-pollution signs and buttons, and then took them to school and said to the teacher, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea if the whole class wore these? And picked up trash on the playground?’”
The Early Wave of Environmental Law: Though major environmental laws like the Clean Water and Air Acts were passed in the 1970s, the practice of environmental law didn’t pick up steam until the early ’90s. “There weren’t any environmental law classes when I was in school in the mid-’80s! There was one that the antitrust professor taught to be a good guy,” Brimmer says. As environmental law has expanded its scope and the frequency of courtroom challenges has increased, Brimmer says that lawyers have seen “more of a backlash from industry than we did earlier.”
Her Typical Workday: “A lot of emails! Unless I’m in court that day, I’m probably writing something. And, like any law job, doing legal research, keeping up on what’s happening. If I am going to court, I do mock arguments in the office. My colleagues are probably harder on me than any judge has ever been. We just go for it. They play judge, and I have to get up there and argue and answer really hard questions. They just keep throwing it at you for two-hour stretches. We hire some of the top lawyers, and we have to be the best when we go to court. We don’t want anyone to think less of us because ‘Oh, gosh, they work for free,’ or ‘Oh, it’s those lefty-enviro types.’”
“I’m going to be honest, I look at the change of administration coming in, and I think, ‘Oh my god. This is going to be really hard.’”
Finding a Work-Life Balance: “You may not be able to avoid doing a lot of work, so you might as well care a lot about what you do. When you go through periods where you’re eating and breathing what you’re doing, you start to feel like that’s normal. Then you get to a time when you can finally take a breath, and you think, I don’t have enough work to do.”
Taking on Challenges: “We know that the hard, protracted cases are the ones where it’s more difficult for people to find lawyers, so we purposefully take those on. But that sometimes means that your success rate—well, it can be a grind. In fact, we have amazing success, and that’s great, but the ones you don’t [win], that’s a hard day.”
Brimmer and her colleagues also work on issues with effects and urgency that are not always immediately apparent. “It’s easy to see a clear-cut forest. People can understand that,” she says. But air pollution is a different story. Brimmer recently argued a case concerning the Navajo Generating Station, a coal plant that she says obscured air quality and visibility in 11 national parks and wilderness areas. “You might not know that if you’ve never visited Grand Canyon, and you don’t realize that you’re supposed to be able to see rim to rim on most days, and you think you’re seeing something amazing because you have no basis for comparison—but in fact, it’s obscured by pollution.”
On Facing the Next Four Years: “There are days that you just want to crawl under your desk, because it’s so emotionally and intellectually difficult when you care about it that much. It’s hard. It’s an uphill battle.” The good news is that Brimmer has observed Earthjustice receiving an uptick in positive feedback—including donations—since the election. And that’s making a difference. “Definitely, support groups that you think are doing good work, that may feel indirect, but it is a big deal in terms of getting the work done,” Brimmer says. Among the organizations that Brimmer supports are the National Resources Defense Council, Audubon, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Trustees for Alaska, Oregon Wild, and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
What Ordinary People Can Do (Besides Donate): “Be informed, show up, and be heard. Many environmental decisions and policies require public comment. Be informed ahead of time, and submit written comments or comment at a hearing. (I think written comments are more effective.) Make sure your legislators at both the state and federal level know. Stay informed on Earthjustice or other organizations’ websites, as they often have information you can use to make informed comments. And finally, be a good steward yourself—those little everyday things can add up.”
How She Unwinds: “Last summer, after spending five weeks at trial—which came on the heels of an already busy year—I went backpacking in the Cascades for two weeks, which really helped. But it doesn't always take a big ol’ backpack trip. It can also be spending time with my dogs in a city park or gardening. I’ve been living in Seattle for close to nine years, and the fact that I can see the Olympic Mountains on my walk to my bus stop is freaking amazing. I will still get enjoyment from walking my dogs at dusk in the wintertime, when the sky happens to be purple, if it’s clear like it is right now, and the moon is out. That alone can make me feel really good.”
On What It Will Take to Protect Our Environment: “The law is an incredible tool. It is something that the powers-that-be tend to wield—and wield very well. We need it to fight back.” But the law, Brimmer says, is not the only tool environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts need to tap to save the planet. “I am one of those people who believes we have to bring all the resources to bear. That includes communications, education, DAPL protests, the public saying hell no, lobbying. It’s going to take all of them, in a mix, to keep ensuring that the environment is there for generations in a way we can all appreciate and be healthy in.”