NRDC’s Summer Legal Intern Program Strives to Live Up to Our Values
NRDC’s summer legal internship program values justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we recognize that our planet’s most pressing environmental crises can only be solved by people from a diversity of identities. A diverse pool of interns is crucial, because we depend on our interns to ask tough questions and think creatively, to bring new ideas and new energy to our work. This summer’s interns did all that and more—they challenged us to show how we live up to our values and to make our efforts public: to tell law students, career centers, and law professors what we’re doing to make our summer legal internship program more just, diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
So we’re doing just that.
Environmental Law Needs Racial Justice
For decades, NRDC failed to adequately challenge—and in many ways reinforced—the legacy of white supremacy in the environmental movement. But it’s clear that racial justice is at the very core of beating the climate crisis and addressing the host of other social and environmental problems that we grapple with every day.
Challenging and dismantling structural inequities and white supremacy in our work and in our workplace will be a long and difficult process, but we’re taking steps to become a more actively anti-racist institution. In recent years, we’ve signed onto equitable and just principles, such as the Jemez Principles of Democratic Organizing and the Five Principles of Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus, to guide how we show up for and work in alignment with communities of color and frontline communities. NRDC also joined the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, a forum for genuine collaboration between environmental justice and national environmental advocacy groups on climate policy. These actions reflect NRDC's intention to reexamine the ways we carry out advocacy and how we can work to center frontline communities and community-driven priorities.
Our leaders have expressed our commitment to racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate toll on Black communities. But we recognize we have a long way to go to become a truly anti-racist organization. One step in that process is to place more emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the summer internship program.
Implementing Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in NRDC’s Summer Legal Internship Program
NRDC values the opportunity to work with passionate and driven summer legal interns from a variety of law schools and identities, with a variety of academic and life experiences. You don’t have to attend a top-ranked law school or identify as an environmentalist to come work with us. We don’t have a "type."
Diversity in our intern classes is about more than just an abstract commitment to avoiding groupthink. Internships shape attorneys’ career trajectories; the faces of today’s interns are the faces of tomorrow’s environmental lawyers. Prioritizing diversity in our summer legal internship program is a necessary step toward overcoming racial inequities in environmental law and elevating racial justice in NRDC’s work going forward.
NRDC hires about 25 legal interns every summer. Our attorneys strive to make sure that our interns feel included in the work and the organization. To that end, we have taken steps to improve our hiring process based on best practices and research, especially when it comes to welcoming a more diverse cohort of interns.
We humbly recognize that these efforts have fallen short; we still struggle to attract law students of color and from a broad range of schools to our program. In recent years, we are pleased to have welcomed students from about 20 different law schools each summer. However, only 20 percent to 30 percent of our summer legal interns have been people of color, similar to NRDC’s senior leadership. It’s clear we have a lot more to do. We look forward to working with NRDC’s new chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, Troy Riddle, to make racial diversity a top priority within our summer legal internship program—and the entire organization—in coming years.
Despite the challenges, we are committed to achieving a more just, diverse, inclusive, and equitable summer legal intern program and holding ourselves accountable to that goal. As part of that commitment, we’re sharing these details about our approach.
Recruiting Diverse Applicants
Our hires can only be as diverse as our applicants, so we have taken steps to encourage a more diverse pool of students to apply for summer legal internships. Because the comparatively low salaries for public interest internships can be a barrier for students without economic privilege, we have increased our stipend to $10,000 for summer legal interns, and we consider applicants who wish to split their summers between NRDC and other employers (e.g., law firms).
We’ve also created positions for first-year law students in several of our offices as an opportunity to explore a career in environmental law and build professional networks right away; first-year interns gain public interest experience while retaining the option of working for a law firm the following summer.
In addition, we’ve expanded our outreach to career centers, professors, affinity groups, diversity placement programs, and past interns from underrepresented schools, and we’ve reduced our on-campus recruiting at top-ranked schools.
Finally, we’ve revised our job description to better communicate the nature of our work and its connection to people and communities, the specific skills we’re looking for in interns, the stipends we offer, and our commitment to justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Reducing Bias in Application Review & Interviews
Study after study has found that implicit biases skew review of job applications. While there’s no clearcut solution, our offices employ a variety of practices to counteract implicit bias in hiring. Some anonymize writing samples or evaluate them only after interviewing a candidate. Others strive to standardize assessments of candidates by, for instance, using a rubric to score their evaluations, asking the same pre-written interview questions to each candidate, and conducting all interviews by the same method (by videoconference, for example). These strategies reduce the potential for unfair advantages based on personal connections, geography, ability to travel, or other factors.
We recognize that these practices may work well in some contexts but not in others, and the body of research on these issues is evolving. For example, anonymization may mitigate a white male decisionmaker’s biases, but for other decisionmakers, it could actually create barriers to hiring diverse applicants. The members of NRDC’s summer legal intern hiring team, which includes a broad group of attorneys and non-attorneys, continuously reexamine our assumptions and practices, based on feedback and learning from trainings, staff and colleagues, and interns and students.
In our review of applications, we also carefully consider the role that privilege plays in a student’s choice of undergraduate institution and law school, their GPA, extracurriculars, and prior work and internship experience. The highest GPA, the highest-ranked law school, and the longest list of environmental jobs and courses do not automatically put a student at the top of the hiring list. On the contrary, we value interns with a variety of life experiences and areas of expertise. We encourage all law students who are committed to public service and justice to apply.
Cultivating a Welcoming & Inclusive Workplace
Offering a positive summer experience for our interns serves multiple goals: It benefits the interns individually and it also advances our efforts to increase diversity in hiring—both for future internships and for staff positions. A student who doesn’t identify with the people or priorities that dominate a workplace may feel isolated and excluded; conversely, too much overt attention to inclusion related to particular identities may make a student feel tokenized and singled out. To make our workplace more respectful and supportive of all identities, NRDC has invested in equity training and consulting, and our summer legal internship program continues to implement better practices in this area.
For example, in 2019, we hosted inclusion trainings for supervising attorneys at environmental organizations in the Bay Area, led by the Bay Area Consortium on Externships (BACE) and Avarna Group. Following these trainings, we introduced welcome surveys to guide interns in goal setting and identifying priorities, and we added peer-review and self-assessment steps to facilitate meaningful feedback on assignments.
We seek to maintain a high level of transparency and encourage interns to approach supervisors or our HR department to raise any issues or concerns. We also invite interns to participate in groups and forums within NRDC related to racial justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. To maximize opportunities for team-building and career development, we match our interns with summer teams and mentors, and we plan social events that take place during work hours and appeal to a wide range of interests (not all environmentalists like to hike!).
In Sum: We Want You
We hope that this information and our commitment to progress will prompt law students with diverse perspectives and identities to apply for summer legal internships at NRDC. We also welcome scrutiny, suggestions, feedback, and reality checks in response.