by Jim Huffman
Western Resources Legal Center was born from the vision and hard work of many individuals and organizations. It is impossible to recount every detail of the founding of WRLC, but a few broad themes underscore the depth and breadth of commitment that led to the nation's first legal skills educational program focused on natural resource management and development.
Beginning in the late 1960s a few of the nation's law schools instituted clinics where law students could work on real legal problems with real clients. These clinics reflected growing interest in the bar, bench and the American Bar Association in more and better skills training for law students. The early clinics were focused on issues relating to poverty, but by the 1980s clinics and skills training programs took up other areas of legal practice including environmental law. Lewis & Clark was a leader in these developments, first with externships that placed students with private and public entities practicing environmental law and later with the establishment of a formal environmental law clinic. Other schools followed suit resulting in dozens of environmental law clinics today.
These environmental clinics and other skills training programs were a boon to law students interested in practicing environmental law, but it became apparent that a segment of the law student population was not benefiting because, in the case of virtually every environmental law clinic, the interests represented are those generally seeking to limit or stop various types of resource development. Students interested in working with resource development businesses were left with no skills training options compatible with their personal interests.
At the same time, resource development interests ranging from family farms and woodlot owners to large businesses in the extractive and resource management industries found themselves as defendants in endless lawsuits, often brought by environmental law clinics. Many of the environmental law clinics located at public law schools, like the University of Oregon, became the objects of political opposition from business and industry. While this reaction is easy to understand, some people in the resource development businesses concluded that a better approach was to encourage law schools to provide skills training education for those law students who would one day become their lawyers.
WRLC grew out of the vision of these resource development interests and the parallel desire on the part of a few legal educators and some determined students to provide skills training for law students seeking a career representing farmers, ranchers, timber companies, water users, mining companies and other businesses that provide the natural resources and productive land uses on which modern life depends.
But it was not easily realized. From concept and early discussions to reality was at least a decade. Without the perseverance and commitment of numerous individuals, WRLC would have died along the way. Not surprisingly, there was resistance from some on purely ideological grounds. Others opposed the effort on the not uncommon but mistaken assumption that resource development interests are all wealthy enterprises not in need of subsidized legal assistance. Still others objected that it would be a waste of educational resources because there was little student interest, another mistaken assumption as demonstrated by the long wait list of students seeking to enroll in WRLC's clinical internship seminar at Lewis & Clark.
All of this was accomplished by people with other jobs and community and family obligations, but with a firm commitment to the objective of providing excellent skills training to law students interested in serving resource development and management businesses. It is truly a remarkable achievement, and a testimony to the vision and public spirit of a lot of individuals, businesses and organizations.