Making its case

Grundy school creating program in natural resources law

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Print this page by Jenny Kincaid Boone

Lucy McGough received a handwritten outline about six months before her first day as the new dean at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy.

It was a five-year plan to launch a natural resources law program that would teach future attorneys about the energy and mineral industries and legal issues facing businesses and residents across the country.

The plan makes sense for a private, nonprofit school like Appalachian, which sits in the heart of Southwest Virginia’s coal country, says McGough.

“We have a vital stake in these issues for our students, for our constituents, for our fellow townsmen,” says McGough, who came to Appalachian last year, after a 25-year stint teaching law at Louisiana State University. “We live what we’re teaching.”

Appalachian’s plan to create a natural resources program began in full force a year and a half ago. Officials at this school of about 260 students realized the growing need to devote more time and money to educating future lawyers about the intricacies of natural resources law, one of the country’s most heavily regulated industries, says Patrick Baker, an associate law professor and chair of institutional development and strategic planning at Appalachian.  He is one of several Appalachian professors who proposed ideas for the new program to McGough. In his former career as an attorney, Baker represented the mineral and energy industries at PennStuart, an Abingdon law firm.

It’s a noteworthy step for a school that suffered significant upheaval after a 2002 campus shooting rampage, in which a former student killed a dean, a professor and a student. Many feared that Appalachian, founded only eight years before, would not survive the incident. But more than 10 years later, the school continues to push forward with support from community donors.

The school previously offered some natural resources law courses, including a joint certificate of graduate study in natural resources with Virginia Tech. Also, many of its alumni practice in the field.
Still, there’s a continuous need for attorneys with natural resources law experience, particularly in the Appalachia region, where a host of energy companies operate within a 200-mile radius, says Gerald Arrington, who is Buchanan County commonwealth’s attorney and an Appalachian graduate.  Even general practice lawyers often have cases that delve into some kind of natural resources issue, he says.

Appalachian does not intend for its program to represent a certain ideology. Officials want students to understand all sides of the issues surrounding natural resources law, including how resources can be developed in a “prudent” manner, Baker says.

“We’re trying to occupy this site of rational discussion,” McGough says. Appalachian wants to be “a place where people can come and talk about these policy issues without having to be tagged as an industry mouthpiece or a conservation activist.”

Appalachian expects its full natural resources program, complete with its own physical location, to debut during the 2015-16 school year, Baker says. Right now, it’s ramping up class offerings with additions that include oil and gas law, coal mineral law and sustainable energy courses.

The classes fit well with the school’s newly launched certificate program in natural resources law, which allows students who earn a law degree (juris doctor) to specialize in this area. Appalachian also plans to offer a master’s degree program with a concentration in natural resources and energy law and regulation.

Other plans include opening a natural resources law practice clinic on campus where students can represent real clients under an attorney’s direction.

At least one challenge remains. The school needs a location to house its natural resources law program.

In 2010, Appalachian purchased a house at 1432 Walnut St., near its campus, for $625,000, according to the Buchanan County commissioner of the revenue’s office. But renovations to make the house complaint with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations are expensive, says McGough, who lives in the house.

Instead, the school has considered a campus building, the Booth Center, for this new Natural Resources Law Center, McGough says.

So far, the program’s costs have been paid by several contributions, including a dean’s discretionary fund and an endowment. McGough would not disclose the total amount of money that the school has raised or the names of the major donors. The school is not soliciting additional funds for the program, she says.

As the school’s natural resources law program rolls out, school officials expect Appalachian students like Taylor Corbett, who graduated in May, to reap the benefits. Corbett, who lives in Elizabethton, Tenn., wanted to work in natural resources law before he came to Appalachian. He gained valuable experience through several law jobs and even one of the school’s newly added coal and hard mineral law classes.

“The jobs are going to be unbelievable,” for future students, he says. “You don’t have people there teaching you who are one year out of law school. When they tell you something, you know it’s coming from personal experience.” 


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