A Conversation with Jon Mueller: New Environmental Law Clinic Director

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Jon Mueller has been teaching as an adjunct professor at Maryland Carey Law for over 10 years and joined the law school as a visiting professor in July 2023 as Director of the Environmental Law Clinic. His 35+ year career as an environmental litigator has spanned private practice to senior attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division, to Vice President for Litigation at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).

In a recent interview Jon, shared his insights on transitioning into his new role, and the rewarding experiences he looks forward to.

With your 35+ years of experience in environmental litigation, how does working with the Environmental Law Clinic differ from your previous roles?

Jon explained that, in the clinic, he must relinquish some control and mentor students who are yet to be fully licensed lawyers. The analogy extended to his father's days as a driver training instructor on Long Island, where a brake on the passenger side served as a safety net. Jon humorously expressed a desire for metaphorical gas and brake pedals to help guide students' progress. “I mean it's an adjustment because I now have to kind of take my hands off the steering wheel and give it to my teenager to start driving. And so, it's a little hard to sit in the passenger seat. In continuing with that analogy, I remember when my dad was a high school driver training instructor and they used to have a separate brake on the passenger side of the car so that he could hit the brakes, if need be, and that's what I feel every once in a while. I wish I had the gas pedal too so that I can get things going. It's a different approach because I had to realize that I'm mentoring yet to be fully licensed lawyers, so that they can be successful once they get out of law school.”

How are you finding the mentoring aspect of the role? Was that something you also did at CBF?

“Yes, it’s really interesting because at the Justice Department, I supervised several lawyers, but most of them already had a fair amount of law practice, so they weren't right out of law school, they'd had some background experience. But then at CBF, I didn't have a staff, it was just me for several years, but I began to hire people and adding to the department until there were five or six of us at one point. For the most part, I hired people who would have some experience, but after a while, I started a one-year fellowship program and that became the Environmental Justice Fellow Program.  Fellows were only a year or two out of law school because I realized that a lot of students who wanted to work in environmental law, every time they applied for a job, they were being told “we want somebody with three to five years of experience,” and it's like, so where do you get those three to five years? The object of the program was to give new lawyers that experience so they could pursue their environmental law careers.”

The Environmental Justice Fellow Program, helped recent law graduates gain valuable experience in the field, bridging the experience gap often encountered by law graduates seeking environmental law positions.

“Interestingly, I ended up hiring several Fellows as full-time lawyers.  It was great mentor them and to watch them grow.  I think I ended up hiring three different lawyers over the course of 8 years.”

Have there been any unexpected surprises since taking on this new position?

After pondering for a moment, Jon mentioned that the variance in student legal experience was a new challenge for him, as he was accustomed to working with legal professionals who had already gained some experience in basic litigation mechanics. However, he’s understanding of the need to be adaptable in his new role as a student mentor and the need to cater to the diverse learning styles and experiences of his students, “I think the surprise was trying to figure out exactly where I fit in the whole scheme of things, and what I'm starting to realize is that I think it's situational for each student. So, for some students they're self-starters. They can run with the ball and you just have to show them which way is the right end zone, and for others it's a little more hands on, and I guess that's just, you know, by virtue of the fact that I've got students that are not out of school yet, whereas in the past I've always had people who have, you know, at least had graduated, taken the bar, and maybe had a year or two practice which typically provides a basic level of understanding.”

What aspects of this role have you found most enjoyable?

“It's always been a joy to me to watch people take off, and I have... When I left CBF, there were these two cases over municipal storm sewer permits for Baltimore County and Baltimore City, and one of the lawyers I hired, Taylor Lilley, who is a former Maryland grad, was our environmental justice lawyer, and she took over those cases after I left. She got to argue in the Maryland Court of Appeals, and she was unbelievable. I went to watch, and Professor Piermattei came, and one of my clinic students came to support Taylor, and also a number of the CBF staff attorneys were there supporting her. It's just so great when you get to see them fly and do well, doesn't mean they're going to win, but they've got the skills and ability to do it. And they're learning to become, you know, great advocates. So that's the fun part. And also, helping the clients get the legal representation that they might not be able to get if they had to pay for it and doing environmental justice work has always kind of been a real bonus along the way, because these are people that know little about the legal world and how it all works, how the rules work, and giving them that representation and when they are successful, that's what's really great.”

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about achieving in your new capacity?

Mueller expressed his excitement about establishing continuity in the clinic's projects. Some cases initiated by students may span several years, from the comment process on permits to potential challenges in court, “I'd like to see some of the cases that the students are developing now continue on. So, they're in phase one of the comment process on a permit. The resulting permit may not be one that the client wants, so then they would want to challenge that decision which likely will not occur in one semester. So having some continuity with different projects over time, even though it will be different students that will step in. Seeing the law school have that kind of persona, I think, is important, and to let the community know that the clinic is here to help these communities that are struggling for legal representation and justice.”

Jon Mueller's journey from a seasoned environmental litigator to the Director of the Environmental Law Clinic is marked by his passion for mentoring and empowering the next generation of lawyers. His dedication to environmental justice and continuity in cases promises to make a significant impact not only within the academic realm but also in the communities the clinic serves. Jon's journey is a testament to the enduring value of mentorship, the rewards of persistence, and the importance of legal representation for those who need it most.