By Kerriann Laubach
Ms. Laubach is a third-year law student at Washington and Lee School of Law. She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2013 with a double major in Biology and Environmental Studies and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies.
As a double General, I owe the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee University for shaping my interests and career goals throughout my undergraduate and law school education. I came to Washington and Lee as a freshman with a passion for environmental advocacy and a vague sense that I wanted to help the underserved. My first two years centered mostly on learning the science behind sustainability and environmental impacts. I became involved with the Shepherd Program beginning in my junior year and quickly learned of the social justice consequences of environmental damage, poor health, and limited resources.
I spent my Shepherd internship during my third summer with an attorney in Chester, Pennsylvania. There, I worked with the youth court system—an alternative school disciplinary system focused on restorative rather than punitive justice. The Shepherd Program gave me this opportunity to learn about the justice system and how lawyers can create positive social change. I began college with the idea of pursuing a law degree, but that summer opportunity revealed just how much a legal career fit with my social justice goals. The coursework for my minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies allowed me to explore issues like environmental racism, the impacts of pollution, and unequal access to healthy communities and resources. I knew that I wanted to pursue an advocacy career at the intersection of public health, environmental justice, and sustainability, but I did not yet know what specific opportunities might fulfill that goal.
Once I knew I would attend Washington and Lee School of Law, I looked to the Shepherd Program to support my ambitions to advocate for the underserved. Through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, I spent my 1L summer with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC) in Whitesburg, Kentucky. There, I worked on cases involving the externalities of coal production—pollution, property damage, and coal mining regulation. I also worked on black lung cases, which involve helping miners afflicted with pneumoconiosis (commonly known as black lung) obtain federal benefits. My undergraduate internship exposed me to urban poverty near Philadelphia, but my law school internship exposed me to rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky.
Given the opportunity to write a Note for the Washington and Lee Law Review, I researched and wrote on how epigenetics—an emerging scientific field—can inform causation in toxic tort cases. Toxic tort litigation is one avenue for recovery if environmental pollution causes health harms, and epigenetic changes seem to link many environmental exposures with disease onset. After my second year of law school, I worked for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, I learned more about environmental litigation and the most pressing environmental issues facing the Southeast.
As a third-year law student, I now serve in the law school’s Black Lung Clinic, applying some of what I learned at ACLC. The Clinic serves clients who need no-cost legal assistance in obtaining federal black lung benefits. Because these cases deal with extensive medical records and expert evidence, they provide the perfect opportunity to apply my scientific background to legal advocacy.
Black lung litigation is an excellent example of the intersection of public health, sustainability, and social justice. Coal is relied on to produce energy, requiring coal mines and miners to extract it from the land. For many in Appalachia, coal mining is the only way to make an income. Generations of families are involved in the industry as sons go into the mines with their fathers. Coal is part of the Appalachian culture and heritage—a culture and heritage that Washington and Lee shares and can contribute its resources to representing. Beyond climate change and air and water pollution, coal impacts communities at a more basic level—by invading the lungs of miners as they work. For many, black lung is simply part of the cost of making an adequate income. Advocating in the black lung world helps current and former miners mitigate the personal and financial costs of the disease.
The Shepherd Program introduced me to the full spectrum of social justice issues, which I will continue to explore after my time in Lexington is complete. Coming full circle, I have accepted a tentative offer of employment to clerk with the Department of Labor’s Office of Administrative Law Judges—the judges who decide black lung and similar workers’ compensation cases. I am excited for the chance to continue black lung work from the perspective of an impartial decision-maker. I know that, whatever the future holds, the lessons I learned in the Shepherd Program and Consortium will continue to inform my personal and career pursuits.