My work is about building relationships, making helpful connections, finding solutions, and communicating them.”
During law school Nathaniel Shoaff never quite envisioned the work he's doing today. As an environmental law fellow with the Sierra Club's Law Program, Shoaff works with the club's chapters all around the country to bring and resolve environmental grassroots lawsuits over matters the members care deeply about.
What he didn't anticipate was how often he would be helping people find solutions that weren't based in litigation. "I talk with the chapters about all the other things they've been doing for years in terms of a given issue. The lobbying, the organizing, the coalition building. While these folks appreciate how the legal process can help them, they also know that there are other methods."
Shoaff appreciates the pragmatic approach of the people he works with. Maybe, he says, the best answer isn't filing or winning a lawsuit, when the real goal is protection of a resource or wildlife. Take, for instance, the balance between preserving habitat and siting large-scale solar energy projects on public lands so that they can get stimulus funding. "You're going to have a conflict between two very important environmental goals.
These projects can have a positive impact on climate change, but can have a negative impact on habitat protection. Sierra takes these issues case by case. We're trying to help make them happen, but site them so that they minimize impacts to sensitive habitats and endangered species." It's important to see each case from a broader perspective, says Shoaff. That way, the legal work he's doing isn't just a "one-off lawsuit." Instead, his efforts become part of a broader initiative to educate the public and change policy on a given issue. Shoaff says he's become more of a problem-solver than a litigator, and that VLS helped develop that quality. "The academic excellence at VLS goes without saying. But beyond that, the school provides other experiences that have made a big difference.
Doing moot court, being editor in chief of the Vermont Law Review, being a dean's fellow, and teaching legal writing to incoming students…even coaching soccer off campus. These things taught me the communication skills I'm using now. My work is about building relationships, making helpful connections, finding solutions, and communicating them."