Susie Ness, Class of 2023

Growing up in Traverse City on the shore of Lake Michigan, Susie Ness has always had a strong interest in clean water and environmental preservation. Her hometown is on a national lakeshore. “My hometown has a culture where we are incredibly appreciative of the environment and the Great Lakes, and I took for granted that environmental stewardship was a priority,” she said.

Susie had chosen her undergraduate college, Colgate University, for its small classes and friendly culture. “I knew I wanted to practice in the public interest when I started law school—I was considering the ACLU track,” she recalled.

She was seeking a law school where she could prepare for public advocacy in a supportive environment where she would know her professors and classmates. Vanderbilt’s George Barrett Social Justice Program, which offers upper-level electives addressing a broad spectrum of topics, and its Public Interest Office, which provides mentoring and career guidance throughout law school to students seeking careers in public advocacy, attracted her to VLS.

Susie realized that practicing environmental law might be her calling as a 1L while attending a panel discussion featuring attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center sponsored by the Public Interest Office. “I had this ‘Aha!’ moment,” she recalled.

She confirmed her interest by taking Environmental Law I from Professor Michael Vandenbergh. Her work as an intern for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan also confirmed her desire to focus on environmental advocacy. “Working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Michigan was a great experience, but I also realized criminal law wasn’t for me,” she said.

As a 2L, Susie set her sights on working for the SELC, which has nine offices in six Southern states and advocates for clean air and water, environmental justice, renewable energy sources, and public land preservation. The Public Interest Office helped her identify internships where she could gain substantive experience that would make her an attractive candidate to the SELC, and she honed her legal skills by working with D.C.-based Earthjustice, the National Wildlife Foundation, and For Love of Water (FLOW), a small environmental nonprofit organization in her hometown, Traverse City.

“I wanted to go into a niche public interest field, and you only have two summers during law school,” she explained. “My semester externships with Earthjustice and FLOW gave me two extra opportunities to gain experience in the field and make contacts.”

Susie also appreciated the opportunities Vanderbilt afforded to pursue scholarly research, including her work on the Vanderbilt Law Review. “I loved academic writing and research and really wanted to have the opportunity to do that in law school,” she said.

She was a Notes Editor of the Law Review as a 3L, and her note, “Water We Cannot See: Codifying a Progressive Public Trust to Protect Groundwater Resources from Depletion,” which focuses on the Public Trust doctrine and groundwater, was published in April. “I wanted to pursue the writing track, and Law Review was an important part of my academic experienced because it honed my skills in writing, citations, proofreading, and legal research.”

In addition to working on the Law Review, Susie wrote a topical white paper for the Energy, Environment and Land Use Program as a research fellow during her 3L year.

One of her favorite classes was the Climate Change Governance seminar she took from Professor J.B. Ruhl, an expert in environmental regulation. “For that course I wrote a substantive legal research paper on a topic I’m passionate about, and class discussions were lively and provided a space to discuss climate change law and policy with my peers,” she said.

Susie particularly appreciated the intellectual climate at the law school. “I was surprised to find that legal practice invites creative thinking—I’d expected the legal system to be strict and rules-based, but many areas of the law require creative applications and leave room for different interpretations. Professors here invite class discussion and debate, and students have opportunities for intellectual growth every semester through guest speakers who come every week to give talks or participate in panel discussions on important and timely topics,” she said.

She plans to join the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston, South Carolina, as a staff attorney after graduation.

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