While an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, Courtney Simmons majored in natural resource management and agriculture and natural resources and minored in wildlife conservation and resource economics with the goal of one day becoming an attorney who could influence change happening in the environment.
Now, by working with the Massachusetts Land Court, Simmons gets the opportunity to work on cases that deal directly with land in the state.
Simmons, an Honors Program student who graduated from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 2011, said that Massachusetts is the only state that has a land court, which is based on the Australian Torrens system.
“Our jurisdiction is pretty unique in terms of it being so specifically related to property and land use issues. But it makes it really cool because at Delaware, my whole undergraduate career was in natural resource management and wildlife conservation so I was really focused on the fact that development is going to happen but how can we do it in a sustainable way where we’re revitalizing areas and communities that need it instead of destroying new green spaces for extra development?” said Simmons.
Simmons works for two different judges at the land court and goes into the courtroom with them whenever they have a hearing, motion or trial while also discussing the cases with them and assisting them in writing decisions.
“Sometimes the judges will make rulings from the bench, like on the TV shows, but most of the time, they take things under advisement and go back and prepare written decisions that become published law,” said Simmons. “Being able to actually draft decisions myself and have discussions with the judges regarding the application of the law or assist in shaping the law is really why I believed the legal system was a good avenue to pursue my goals of sustainable development.”
As an undergraduate at UD, Simmons said that an environmental law class sparked her interest in pursuing a career in the field.
“That was the first law class that I took and it really got me interested in thinking of different ways that we can influence changes happening to the environment,” Simmons said. “I actually thought that being an attorney working for the court or the legal system was probably the most effective avenue to go about changing the law or to be an advocate for natural resources that don’t have their own voice, and to protect natural areas and endangered species.”
Simmons, who received her law degree from Boston University in 2015, also worked as an intern at an Alaskan non-profit law firm for a summer and worked at American Tower Corp., where she spent time going over real estate documents and leasing documents after the company purchased towers from Verizon.
During that process, Simmons said that some of the projects had to submit environmental reports that included wetlands impact studies or native species impact studies, and she was able to see her degree from UD pay off.
“Not only were we reviewing the leases but we actually were looking at these environmental reports and documents. It was interesting because as an undergrad, I saw all those documents and I saw how a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) report was set up – then to actually be put on a project where I’m not only dealing with the legal side but I have this environmental scientific background, it made it a lot easier to understand the science behind things,” said Simmons.
Because many lawyers have undergraduate degrees in political science or law, Simmons said that having a degree in natural resource management and wildlife conservation helped her to be well-rounded and to have hands-on research opportunities
“When I was in Alaska, the people who didn’t have environmental backgrounds often had a really difficult time reading reports from state departments and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they didn’t know all these different chemicals or economic analysis of affected property values,” Simmons said. “I think my background at Delaware was really well-rounded in that sense. It allowed me to apply the law in this field in a really useful way that not a lot of law students have, and being in this field in particular really helped.”
Time at UD
Simmons singled out Steve Hastings, professor and associate chair of the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics, Josh Duke, professor of food and resource economics, economics and legal studies, and Jacob Bowman, chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, as being particularly helpful to her during her time at UD.
Of Hastings, Simmons said that he was “always great and easy to talk to” and that he helped her out with recommendations throughout law school.
“He taught me to not just be so one-sided when you look at something and not be an environmentalist who contends ‘development is always bad.’ Everything is shades of gray so you can’t really be too far on one side or the other. You have to find compromises, which I think is a lot of what natural resource management is all about,” said Simmons.
Simmons said that by looking at different points of view throughout her time at UD, her undergraduate experience allowed her to figure out ways to compromise.
“That’s a lot of what being an attorney is. The last straw is for people to take things to trial. We want to get things done well before that or before something is even filed in court. I think all those perspectives were really helpful,” said Simmons.
She also said that she enjoyed studying in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and being on south campus.
“The labs were one of the best features. I took soil science and mammalogy and apiology. Just being able to go out and get your hands dirty and learn how to harvest honey, it’s something that a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do. I think having that hands-on part of the undergraduate degree really helped make me a more well-rounded person in the way I approach things,” Simmons said.
Article by Adam Thomas
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