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UCLA’s top teachers: Law prof trains defenders of environment

By Alison Hewitt
Originally posted in UCLA Today

When Environmental Law Professor Ann Carlson first made the switch from politics and law firms to UCLA in 1994, she jumped right in by creating the school’s environmental law clinic, a course in which students learn by working on active cases.

Students from her classes have vivid memories of the work they did on lawsuits to protect whales from Navy sonar and save the Santa Monica Bay from toxic runoff as well as on an injunction to help a low-income neighborhood force a business to clean up what it had dumped into a vacant lot.

Carlson inspired her students to become lawyers who could contribute to the public interest, recalled former student Braden Penhoet. “We wanted to be like her and make a difference.”

But creating that class was just the beginning. “My aim,” said Carlson, the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law, “is to make UCLA one of the leading centers in the country to study climate change law.”

Her colleagues describe her as the pillar of the School of Law’s environmental program. “It is not an exaggeration to say that Professor Carlson invented the thriving environmental law program that now exists at UCLA,” said Sean Hecht, the executive director of UCLA’s Environmental Law Center, which Carlson helped establish. She also helped create and solidify the Program in Public Interest Law and Policy, the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment, where she is faculty director, and the school’s first course on climate change law and policy.

When Hecht arrived at UCLA, he joined Carlson in teaching her environmental law class. “Ann is an extraordinarily gifted teacher,” he recalled. “She was the best teaching mentor anyone could ask for.”

After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law, Carlson was a consultant for the California State Senate in the ’80s and worked at a Los Angeles law firm before becoming a UCLA law professor in ’94, later with a joint appointment at UCLA's Institure of the Environment and Sustainability. She is now an internationally known climate-change scholar, noted a colleague, Professor Gerald Lopez. “Ann has easily been one of her generation’s most influential teachers,” he said. In part by focusing on both the basics of lawyering and on theory, “she has offered an alternative educational experience that challenges the approach that has dominated legal education since 1870.”

Cara Horowitz, a fellow professor and executive director of the Emmett Center, calls Carlson a student favorite whose classes are regularly over-enrolled. “And with good reason. She is funny, wickedly smart, engaged and endlessly engaging,” Horowitz said. Students aren’t the only ones who admire Carlson’s teaching, she added. “She has served as my own model for how to approach university teaching. Why not set the bar high?”

Other professors in UCLA LAW also look to Carlson for ways to improve their teaching. Winner of the law school’s 2006 Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching, she reads student comments from end-of-class evaluation forms “not just to count the superlatives or condemnations, but to figure out how and why this person succeeds or fails at teaching,” said Law Professor Stephen Yeazell, who served as interim law school dean in 2009-10. Fellow Law Professor Albert Moore added, “I believe that what I have learned from watching Ann teach … has made me a much better teacher.”

Her challenge, Carlson said, is to teach the practical, professional skills her students need to become lawyers, “while making law school an intellectually rich and theoretically sophisticated experience,” she said. “Students can finish their first year of law school without thinking about the complexities of actually representing a client. … I think my unique contribution in the clinical setting, then, is to combine a more traditionally scholarly and doctrinal take on broad legal questions with focused, technical lawyering skills.”

From her intense question-and-answer sessions and in-class mock trials to real case work, her students respond enthusiastically, praising her for her teaching method and warm personality. “Professor Carlson relies heavily on the Socratic method; however, unlike many, she is able to make the back-and-forth between teacher and student feel like a conversation rather than an interrogation,” said law student Matt Light.

Instead of throwing follow-up questions at different students, she would focus on one randomly chosen student, Light said, encouraging deeper thinking and better preparation from everyone: “A shoddy answer will not remove us from the hook.” But just as she expected her students to answer every question, she made herself available to answer theirs, he added.

“Every facet of Professor Carlson’s teaching made her class a wonderful learning experience,” Light said, “and distinguished her as one of the best professors that I have had.”