Into the Wild with Earthjustice’s Amanda Sharp

Logikcull is pleased to work with all our wonderful customers, but we’re particularly proud of our relationship with Earthjustice. Earthjustice is legal counsel for, you guessed it, Earth. So its clients include, along with you and me, the Deschutes River, wild salmon, the polar ice caps, and the super-rare Mexican gray wolf. More on that little guy in a bit.

Due to the size of the non-profit’s operation — it has 13 offices across the US and brings dozens of cases a year — it is always looking for ways to make its $40 million in charitable donations stretch just that much further. To that end, Earthjustice is in the middle of a comprehensive overhaul of its technology systems as it looks for ways to practice more efficiently and collaboratively.

Here we talk to Earthjustice’s San Francisco-based legal operations expert, Amanda Sharp, about the organization’s mission, its important causes, and how it is using modern legal-tech solutions to zealously represent our planet.

Logikcull: Give us an idea of what Earthjustice does and what it’s mission is.

Amanda Sharp: Earthjustice is the country’s original and largest non-profit environmental law organization. We represent all of our clients free of charge. It’s quite a large organization. We have 110 attorneys and 13 offices spread across the country, from Hawaii to Alaska to Bozeman, Montana to Florida to New York.

Our mission focuses on three goals: protecting the wild, which includes wild places and wildlife; sustaining healthy, safe communities for everyone; and strengthening clean energy and a healthy client.

L: What specific issues is the organization focusing on right now?

AS: Since we are so large, we currently have hundreds of active cases. It’s hard for me to choose a few for this because we have so many that are really interesting. I encourage anyone reading or listening to this to visit our websiteWe’re currently focusing on cases that support the goals I just mentioned. More often than not, we’re in a David and Goliath situation. We usually represent small community groups against big government agencies, or large oil or petroleum companies, or big conglomerates. Despite this, we have a remarkable track record of winning, which is very satisfying.

L: Can you highlight some of those recent victories?

AS: It’s hard to choose just one. Each year we have over 50 victories for ourselves and for our clients, which is pretty remarkable. One of my favorite examples involves the Mexican gray wolf. There are only 97 of these left in the wild in the US, and only 25 in Mexico. Currently, there’s very little being done to protect them. They’re subject to illegal killings from ranchers, and they’re also dying off due to a lack of genetic diversity because their population size is so small.

“Each year we have over 50 victories for our clients, which is pretty remarkable. More often than not, we’re in a David and Goliath situation.”

We were recently able to negotiate a court settlement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a recovery plan they’ve been talking about but long delaying for the wolves. They’ll be preparing that by the end of this year. That was a huge victory for the wolves.

Another recent victory that stood out to me because my family is involved in farming in California involved pesticides. We were able to successfully pressure the EPA to propose banning the neurotoxic chemical Chlorpyrifos, which is currently used in pesticides and agriculture. It’s been proven to cause brain damage in children, and it’s widely used in agriculture. The EPA had no problem banning it in household use, but has taken its time to even propose banning it in agriculture. Banning it would protect farm workers and their families, and also people who live in rural communities who experience pesticide drift. And it will protect all of us who eat fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue on it.

L: When Earthjustice takes on one of these cases, are you typically joined by other groups or law firms? Or is it just Earthjustice that is pursuing these causes?

AS: We typically represent the group that’s bringing the action, so we basically serve as the lawyers. One of our biggest clients is the Sierra Club, for example, as is the Natural Resources Defense Council. But we also represent a large number of small community and first nations groups.

L: You have a law firm background, having come from Wilson Sonsini. How did you get involved in Earthjustice? What was the appeal for you?

AS: It was an unusual path. I was at Wilson Sonsini for a number of years and left for personal reasons to live in Southeast Asia for a few years, where I participated in a lot of volunteer work. I lived in Jakarta, which has some of the worst pollution in the world. As someone who grew up in California and was used to clean air, it was a shock to see overcast skies every day and to constantly cough breathing the air. So when I came back to the US and saw this role at Earthjustice, I was immediately attracted to it because living overseas had made me hyperaware of how important these sorts of environmental protections are to our everyday quality of life.

L: You’re the litigation operations manager at Earthjustice. What does that role entail? 

AS: Litigation operations manager is a brand new role for our organization, and I was brought on board to update Earthjustice’s systems and procedures to be more efficient for our lawyers. They want it to operate a little more like a law firm and less like a non-profit in that regard. I’m involved in a huge range of areas. Basically, if it involves legal technology, I’m responsible for it.

L: In terms of legal technology, what would you say your top priorities are right now?

AS: We’ve reached a tipping point where we can’t do this stuff in paper anymore, and people are accepting that we need to use technology to be more efficient. So I’m helping us “make the tip” and embrace technology. It’s a great role. I was basically given free reign to select the e-discovery platform that we use, since no one else here is familiar with e-discovery. I would say our priorities are split evenly between e-discovery — again, we have 110 attorneys, so I’m solely responsible for supporting them in regard to document review and e-discovery practices — and supporting general counsel, getting our case management system up and running, and our working in our conflicts practice.

“We’ve reached a tipping point where we can’t do this stuff in paper anymore, and people are accepting that we need to use technology to be more efficient.”

L: Would you say that your colleagues are embracing technology? Or has that been something that’s been hard to pass through?

AS: We all know that lawyers aren’t always the first to embrace technology. They can be a little suspicious of it. I have the added complication that our attorneys are really used to doing things themselves. I’ve seen managing attorneys scan binders of documents, which isn’t something you’d ever see at a commercial firm. Usually, you’d just punt that to an assistant. Our attorneys are very prepared to get their hands dirty and do a lot of manual work themselves. They’re not afraid to do that. But the downside of that is that it doesn’t use their time wisely. They need to be practicing law, not scanning binders.

So part of my challenge is convincing them the technology is worth the cost, since we are a non-profit. We are extremely cost-conscious. I need to convince them that an e-discovery platform is necessary. Yes, you could spend weeks manually reviewing documents, but it’s worth the extra cost to cut that to a few days.

L: In terms of the work environment and the way the organization operates, how is Earthjustice different from a law firm?

AS: It’s moving in a law firm direction in terms of workflows. But if I said Earthjustice was moving to become a traditional law firm in terms of the environment, I think people would kill me here! We’re very consciously not a traditional law firm, and we’re quite proud of that. Our offices are definitely not as fancy. The dress code is definitely a lot more relaxed. This is the first place I’ve worked where, if I wanted to, I could wear jeans every day. But what fascinated me is that our lawyers work every bit as hard as the attorneys at the big law firms I’ve been involved with. They zealously represent their clients. They’re deeply passionate about their work.

“If I said Earthjustice was moving to become a traditional law firm in terms of the environment, I think people would kill me here!”

L: You mentioned that, prior to using Logikcull, your discovery workflows tended to be pretty manual. What other e-discovery challenges do you face, and how do you go about tackling those?

AS: One major is the one I described earlier, where attorneys are almost unhelpfully willing to do stuff manually and will avoid using new technology because they don’t mind spending an extra couple hours scanning documents or reviewing them manually. Another challenge is just that there’s an overall lack of e-discovery knowledge and practice in our organization. It hasn’t really been necessary here yet on a large scale. So we’re sorta again at one of those tipping points where the productions we’re receiving are getting big enough that it’s not feasible to review them manually anymore. So I’m the one telling our attorneys, “There’s a better option. You should use it.” And a lot of them are eagerly accepting and embracing the new tools.

To learn how others are using modern discovery solutions to build stronger legal practices, check out the Attorney’s Guide To Going Mobile.