Q&A with Susan Charles

Susan Charles, a partner in Ice Miller’s environmental law group, represents clients in environmental litigation, compliance and transactional matters. Her litigation work includes the defense of state and federal enforcement actions, citizen suits, statutory cleanup actions and private actions for cleanup costs.

Why did you become a lawyer?

While not a particularly noble beginning, the truth is that when I was about 7-years-old, my father promised to buy me a briefcase if I graduated from law school.  Although I didn’t become a lawyer for the briefcase (I promise!), this is the conversation that initially triggered my thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Reflecting on this question over the years, I realized that, more than a job, I want to be part of a profession.  The practice of law seemed steeped in tradition, discipline and intellectual challenge.  I also imagined the legal profession as very structured, and all of that appealed to me.

What advice do you have for law students?

Two thoughts come to mind.  First, there is simply no substitute for hard work.  Law school is only three (admittedly long) years, but what you do with those three years can significantly shape the rest of your career.  Second, while I know of no lawyer who would discount the value of graduating with top marks, law school involves more than a quest for good grades.  It is an opportunity to begin to learn how to counsel others on what impact the law may have to a particular situation.  Learning how to be a lawyer involves more than memorizing the letter of the law.  It also involves the ability to articulate a particular nuance of the law to form a legal argument.  Learning to make a good legal argument requires more than three years of law school, but the tools to think like a lawyer can be developed as part of the law school experience.

What is the biggest way that your practice has changed since you first started working in that area?

The focus of environmental law seems to have shifted since I began practicing.  In the late 90s, the majority of work seemed rooted in statutory and regulatory activity involving contamination to air, water and land.  Over the past decade or so, I think an increasing number of environmental lawyers have begun to focus on toxic tort litigation involving allegations of human exposure to particular contaminants.  We’ve also seen significant growth in the number of environmental lawyers focusing on issues involving climate change and renewable energy.

Looking beyond the field of environmental law, I also have noticed an increasing appreciation of and respect for pro bono work.  Lawyers at firms of all sizes seem to be involved in pro bono activities – whether representing clients in court or participating in community outreach and education efforts.  I suspect that the opportunity to help others is, to some extent, a driver in many lawyers’ decisions to enter the profession.  Participating in pro bono activities is an excellent opportunity to refocus on why we became lawyers and a good opportunity to appreciate each other and our profession.

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