Spotlight Series #3: Professor Nick Fromherz – Traditional Roots, International Impact

by Michael Albalah, Managing Editor, Fordham Environmental Law Review

Because the pandemic has normalized distanced learning, I’ve been able to speak with and learn from people who are far from New York City.  And still, I didn’t expect that this project would connect me to Nick Fromherz in Bolivia!  Nick teaches at and serves as a senior attorney for the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment (the “Global Law Alliance”) at Lewis & Clark Law School. Although the Global Law Alliance nominally began its work in 2020, it is in fact an outgrowth of the International Environmental Law Project, founded by Chris Wold approximately twenty-five years ago and now directed by leading scholar and practitioner Erica Lyman.  Likewise, Nick’s commitment to protecting animals and the environment at an international scale is nothing new. My discussion with Nick was inspiring. It was yet another reminder that a successful career in environmental law needs to be considered holistically.

Nick’s initial attraction to environmental and wildlife law at the international level probably happened long before he was a clerk in the federal courts, but a pair of clerking experiences provided an important spark.  First, in a case involving exploratory drilling for oil and gas in the Huron-Manistee National Forest—near a river famous for its abundant trout population—Nick had a chance to see the power and complexity of environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act.  That was the environmental hook.  The pull of international work came shortly thereafter, while working on a class action appeal that involved a global pharmaceutical company accused of selling dubious blood products to unsuspecting consumers in Argentina.

Nick was a standout law student (he was valedictorian of his law-school class!).  He clerked in the Eastern District of Michigan with Judge Lawson and then with Judge Evans of the Seventh Circuit.  Reflecting on his time as a clerk, Nick explained that the diversity of work—both substantively and procedurally—never failed to excite.  Clerking offered Nick an opportunity to appreciate “not just what the law says, but how it works in the face of real-world problems, with resource constraints, information asymmetry, party disparities, and all the rest.”

Immediately following his clerkships, Nick practiced as a litigation attorney—primarily in labor and employment matters—for a large law firm.  He shared that if you find yourself working as a young attorney in BigLaw and have an interest in environmental law—or any other specialty, for that matter—it is important to let your interest be known early.  Otherwise, the inertia of a larger law practice can easily overwhelm one’s sense of agency (even as firm practice remains an excellent training ground). Nick reflected that, in hindsight, he wishes he would have tried harder to look for opportunities to engage in environmental matters while working in BigLaw.  In retrospect, Nick perceives possibilities that he may have overlooked at the time—perhaps because he did not take the time to canvass all the options and engage senior colleagues in a deliberate way.  Nick encourages young attorneys in a similar position to do just that.  This was practical advice.

On a personal level, Nick really enjoys South America. His wife is Bolivian, and he has come to deeply appreciate Bolivian culture.

Nick explained how time spent living and working abroad has enriched his work in international environmental law.  Providing sound counsel in an international context requires flexibility—even the capacity to toggle between wholly distinct paradigms.  While foreign legal systems share common ground with the U.S. framework in many instances, effective work in foreign systems requires the ability to recognize—and quickly shed—assumptions about how law operates.

Since transitioning away from litigation, Nick’s work has largely focused on wildlife and habitat conservation. This includes work in connection with global treaties—like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—as well as work within the domestic legal regimes of foreign nations (often in partnership with NGOs and other local stakeholders).  Nick engaged in these two lines of related but distinct work for several years with a public-interest law firm dedicated to conserving marine wildlife—and now he continues this two-fold approach with the Global Law Alliance.

Still, Nick credits his litigation background with informing how he conducts this work.  He believes that starting with primary sources, like treaties, statutes, and regulations, is an important first step when approaching any issue.  While this may seem obvious enough in the context of U.S. law, it can be tempting for U.S. lawyers to head straight to secondary sources when researching questions of international or foreign law. But this approach—while perhaps appealing as a short-cut—risks introducing error and bias, bias that can linger and taint the analysis even as the researcher eventually moves to primary sources.

Nick also writes extensively. His work has appeared in the most prominent law journals as well as lay outlets.  He has written on his multiple specialty areas including administrative law, domestic environmental law, and international environmental law.  For Nick, scholarship serves multiple goals. While it allows him to contribute to legal practice, it also enables him to reach an audience with what he hopes is a unique perspective.  Leveraging his time living and working abroad, Nick tries to offer insights on global environmental and wildlife issues that may be overlooked by many U.S. lawyers.  His advice to students who want to write is to think in terms of two main axes: plausibility and creativity.  In other words, if a student is considering advancing a fresh argument on an issue, it’s important it’s both plausible (grounded in reality) and at least somewhat novel (so as to advance the existing thinking and literature).

One of the most fascinating parts of my conversation with Nick was his perspective on the malleability and curiosity needed to be a good international lawyer.  It’s clear that this advice likely translates to a domestic practice as well.  He noted how our legal frameworks are supported by shared assumptions about norms and values that often aren’t codified in text.  He explained that in order to advance goals within other countries’ legal systems, one should not only learn the state of the law, but also make an effort to understand the legal culture.  This means exploring questions like: What is the role of law in a given country?  How do legal institutions work?  Are concepts like judicial precedent valid—and, if so, to what extent?

Sharing his perspective on the state of working in environmental law generally, Nick offered the metaphor of a Venn diagram.  His advice was to decide what you’re good at, what’s important to you, and what you like—and then try to work in a job that meets those metrics.  Even if you have to take a nonlinear path to get to the job at the heart of the Venn diagram, all of the work along the way is valuable.

Finally, Nick emphasized the importance of always remembering that law is a collaborative profession.  He encourages students and young lawyers to build close collegial networks, to learn from each other, to lend support, and to cherish camaraderie.  On this score, Nick expressed his personal gratitude for being able to work with excellent colleagues within both the Environmental and Animal Law programs at Lewis & Clark.