Deputy Attorney IV and Environmental Team Leader at California Department of Transportation, Legal Division in Sacramento, Calif.
Area of Practice: Government
Year Graduated: 2000
As a long-time Sacramento resident, it was easy for Judith Carlson to choose Pacific McGeorge as the school she wanted to attend for law school. After graduating from CSU Sacramento, Ms. Carlson became a legal secretary and then transitioned into a paralegal position. She worked for private attorneys mostly in appellate law for about ten years, and then decided that going to law school was the natural next step to take. Ms. Carlson remembers her time at McGeorge fondly—she made a lot of good friends that she still keeps in touch with, and the evening division gave her flexibility she needed as a single mother. After graduation, Ms. Carlson secured a job with the Department of Corporations. She transitioned to the Secretary of State's Office, focusing on election law issues, and five years ago moved to CalTrans, where she works on environmental legal issues.
Ms. Carlson notes that in her practice at CalTrans, her day-to-day responsibilities vary greatly because of all of the different issues in environmental law. Just a few of the topics that Ms. Carlson handles are CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) litigation, NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) litigation in federal court, other environmental litigation, document review, client advisement, and some contractual issues. Ms. Carlson describes CEQA litigation as "different than regular litigation," explaining that CEQA actions are writ proceedings in the state court and include briefing and argument, somewhat like an appeal. She also states that there is extensive document review in her practice because every time something is built, Environmental Impact Reports and/or other environmental documents have to be created, which can be hundreds of pages.
In her practice at CalTrans, continuous training is important because there are so many different environmental laws and regulations and it is critical to stay current in this constantly changing area of law. Ms. Carlson explains that in her office, they keep an eye out for not only continuing legal education classes, but classes on developing environmental issues. Ms. Carlson's practice is intellectually challenging, the work is rewarding and it is right up her alley as far as problem solving, research and analysis. Ms. Carlson also finds the connections she has made with clients to be fulfilling. "I have different clients all over the state, and when they thank you, it's a reward for your hard work," she says.
Ms. Carlson states that Sacramento is an excellent location in which to practice. "The cost of living in Sacramento compared to where our other legal offices are located — San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego — is much better," she explains. Ms. Carlson also says "in Sacramento, you get to work next to the governor's office — where it's all happening."
Ms. Carlson also addressed a unique challenge of public sector practice — fewer resources available to government attorneys in contrast to private practice. "We have a lot of phone conferences, instead of traveling to our clients," she explains. "It is also challenging to get a lot of information online. The packages that are available [through Westlaw and LexisNexis] limit us."
In reflecting on how to prepare for a job in the public sector, and specifically at CalTrans, Ms. Carlson says, "If I could take my crystal ball and go back, I would take classes in environmental law, water law, and because it involves administrative practice, administrative law." Though she points to those specific classes as being helpful, Ms. Carlson also notes that not having any environmental experience is not a disqualifier for a position such as hers. "It's not the factual knowledge that makes the difference, it's the skills," she explains. "If you have good basic writing and research skills, you can translate them to other agencies. The rest you can learn, although you have to keep in mind that there is a lot to learn if you want to be good at environmental law practice." Ms. Carlson also explains that she is not responsible for hiring employees, but if she were, she would look for a certain personality type. "You have to be able to work both independently and as a team," she says, "and have a good attitude and a sense of humor." She comments that she would much rather hire someone who is "there to stay" as opposed to someone who is just looking for any job.
Ms. Carlson does suggest that doing an internship, even at a private environmental firm, would be helpful for students so that they can see what the documents look like and what the different litigation processes entail. "Just keep your eyes out for opportunities where you can hang around and learn," she states. "Sometimes the state or county bar will have a speaker at a luncheon, and you can get a lot of good information." She added that it might be good to attend one or two continuing education classes on environmental law to see if the subject matter appeals to you.