Alternative Legal Career: Riverkeeper

Published: Apr 10, 2018

 JD Alternative       Law       
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Jesse Iliff is the South Riverkeeper for the South River Federation, located in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Jesse’s tasks include advocacy, enforcement, outreach, monitoring, and more. Prior to his position as a Riverkeeper, Jesse worked as a litigator. He received his JD from University of Maryland School of Law, with a Certificate of Concentration in Environmental Law. Vault interviewed Jesse about his alternative legal career and advice for others seeking a nontraditional path.


Jesse IliffVault: What is a Riverkeeper?

Jesse: A Riverkeeper is a license holder of a registered title from the Water Keeper Alliance, and our job is to ensure that a given water body is protected and restored. The mission of the Water Keeper Alliance is to make the waters of the world fishable, drinkable, and swimmable.

Vault: What are some of your typical duties?

Jesse: It’s a very seasonal job for me. My typical days these days involve a lot of policy work. Unfortunately the five bills that I worked on this year all have died or have been transformed into things that are shadows of what we had hoped for earlier in the year. I spend a lot of time testifying to legislative committees about issues that will protect and preserve the Chesapeake Bay and the South River.

In the springtime, there are a lot of events like Earth Day rallies and rallying volunteers. I’m half lawyer/policy guy and half scientific-monitoring guy. In two weeks, I’ll be out on the water with my equipment measuring water quality. That goes until October, when I’ll be back to focusing on policy.

Throughout the year, I’m always working on enforcement issues, like local grading ordinances and land use law. I keep my finger on the pulse of development and ensure construction is within the limits of the law in terms of its impact on the environment.

Vault: Can you explain your journey from law school to where you are today?

Jesse: I knew I wanted to do environmental work, so I got a Certificate of Concentration in Environmental Law and participated in University of Maryland’s Environmental Law Clinic, where I got to represent a Riverkeeper, among other clients. I graduated in 2010 during the Great Recession, so jobs were scarce. I took the first job I could get with a small firm, which took me on an interesting trajectory. I did a lot of litigation in state and federal courts and gained a lot of experience in terms of civil procedure and understanding how to run a case. It was not in the field I wanted, but it was bedrock lawyer skills.

The firm I was working for dissolved, so my boss and I started our own firm after a couple of years. It was going fine, but there came a time where he proposed to have a partnership. There was potential upside to that, but at the same time, we worked on contingency. My wife and I had a new baby on the way, and I knew it could be hard going months without getting paid.

I started looking for another job, and fortunately the Riverkeeper position was open that same month. It was on the river that I lived on for years and the county that I grew up in. It was perfect. I applied, I got it, and here I am.

Vault: What skills from law school do you think help you most in your day-to-day?

Jesse: I definitely do a lot of writing, and I got much better at it in law school. I draft policy comments and position papers representing a lot of people. I received training in law school for that specific purpose.

Also, I was in the Environmental Law Clinic. Taking advantage of any opportunities to interact with clients in the field you hope to practice in is crucial. Representing a Riverkeeper in law school gave me insight into what that job was like. I already had a leg up on how to “talk the talk” in the interview.

Vault: What advice do you have for law students and attorneys who are interested in following an alternative path to law firm practice?

Jesse: The first and most important piece of advice is such jobs do exist. Think about your skills more than your past experiences and play from your strengths. A lot of recent graduates aren’t going to have a depth of experience to draw on. But if you present your strengths, you can learn new skills to fit into the role that the organization you’re looking at might need, and you can redefine that role based on your skill set.

Vault: How can people learn more about the South River Federation?

Jesse: We have a website, a Facebook page, and a twitter profile. I’m proud to say that we’re in the news enough that if you google “South River Federation,” a lot of news will come up. There’s a good bit of material on the web. Also, if anyone is in the area and would like to drop us a line and have a tour of the restoration site and what we do on the river, feel free to contact me (jesse@southriverfederation.net; 410-224-3802, ext.203).