You probably already know what Earthjustice is. It's possible you remember it by its old name, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, founded in 1971. Known for the past 15 years as Earthjustice, the San Francisco-based nonprofit bills itself as the nation's leading public interest environmental law firm. Earthjustice's beginnings actually go back to 1965, when the Sierra Club launched a campaign to protect the Mineral King Valley in the southern stretch of the Sierra Nevada from a ski resort development proposed by the Walt Disney Co. The Sierra Club went to federal court in 1969, and although the club initially lost in the U.S. Supreme Court on standing grounds, its legal campaign -- then handled by the fledgling SCLDF -- eventually forced Disney to drop the stalled project.
SCLDF changed its name to Earthjustice in 1997 to reflect its broad client base within the environmental community. The firm has represented more than 1,000 citizen groups and individuals without charge. Today, Earthjustice has no formal operational connection to the Sierra Club, but it remains the environmental group the firm represents most frequently. Earthjustice supports its litigation with lobbying and public advocacy campaigns and employs 85 environmental attorneys in nine regional offices nationwide to handle its case work.
FROM ENGINEERING TO THE ENVIRONMENT
William Curtiss left his first career in mechanical engineering "because I never wanted to become a specialist ... knowing more and more about a tinier and tinier piece of the world was of no interest to me." And as Earthjustice's general counsel he's largely avoided that fate, having tried some of the earliest cases involving nuclear power plants, land use, highway planning, air quality and giant landfills and shaping one of the world's foremost firms in environmental law. And, he's been able to spend a lot of time outdoors. Reporting to Earthjustice's senior vice president of operations, Kristine Stratton, Curtiss primarily serves as the chief legal adviser to Earthjustice's senior management and its board of trustees; he doesn't try cases anymore.
Curtiss has spent most of his career at Earthjustice, joining the firm in 1979 as a staff attorney in its Denver office, filing and defending trial and appellate lawsuits on regional environmental issues ranging from strip mines and power plants on the Colorado Plateau to air and water pollution in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Palo Alto native became managing attorney of the nonprofit's San Francisco regional office in 1989, vice president for programs in 1998 and deputy director in 2005 before becoming general counsel in 2008, first managing lawyers doing the environmental case work of the firm and then helping create the governance structure the firm operates under today.
After graduating from Stanford in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Curtiss worked for a few years before he applied to UCLA School of Law, graduating in 1974. Early in law school, Curtiss met Rick Sutherland, then head of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, who became an early mentor. Curtiss did an externship at CLPI and after he did three years of defense work at San Francisco's Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold, Sutherland recruited Curtiss for his first job in the Denver office of SCLDF.
Curtiss is a walking encyclopedia on the development of the practice of environmental law. "Until the Ford Foundation began to fund the first public interest law firms in 1970, the idea that you could make a legal career defending the environment was hard to imagine," he says. "My first year in law school was 1971, the year the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund was founded. I was almost watching it happen in real time."
He thinks his early career as an environmental law generalist shaped the work he's doing now, which is "to focus on the big picture" at Earthjustice. "We're in the midst of the first risk management plan we've ever done, which is unique because we're not like any commercial legal practice," he says. "I've spent a lot of time lately at 40,000 feet looking down to get a picture of all the risks we face as an organization, from tax issues to trademark and intellectual property matters. Our goal is not to be risk-free, but rather to run the right risks for the right reasons." But the most gratifying part of his job is helping plan for the future. "Earthjustice is now 40 years old. I try to think about 40 years from now. Part of the challenge of conceiving of ourselves as an institution with a four-decade life is to keep up with the outside world that's changing beyond us."
INSIDE AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
Curtiss is a one-man band focusing on operational, governance and strategic issues with Earthjustice's top management and board. His day-to-day in-house legal work focuses "on the issues of being a 501(c)(3) organization, which is the bread and butter of life around here." When he goes outside, it tends to be to specialists. Adler & Colvin in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.-based Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg provide help with nonprofit corporate and tax advice. Reed Smith was brought in to assist Earthjustice in its move last year from Oakland, Calif., to its new facilities at 50 California St. in San Francisco as a way to better recruit employees from Marin County and the Peninsula. "A lease negotiation is a one-time transaction that requires expertise, so that's an easy reason to go outside, but overall, we look for expertise and the ability to understand our needs as a client," Curtiss explains. "We aren't always a good stand-in for a commercial organization." Earthjustice also gets pro bono assistance from Morrison & Foerster's Palo Alto office in human resources and employment and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in trademark and IP matters. As to the qualities outside counsel need to have, Curtiss says he looks for firms "that help us get our work done. Many lawyers leave you with more questions and more things to consider than when you contacted them. That isn't a helpful result. I want someone who tells me, 'I will help you deal with your problems and get your needs met.'"