Trees to torts: Rising 3L Natalie Merline pursues interest in environmental justice

Jun 25, 2024 | Stegner Center

by Lindsay Wilcox

Natalie Merline, a young white woman with shoulder-length straight red hairRising 3L Natalie Merline earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science and says she always assumed she would work within science. While earning her undergraduate, however, she couldn’t see a clear career path within science.

“I just happened to learn about law school as another path I could take. The more I talked with environmental lawyers and researched what environmental lawyers do, the more confident I felt that I wanted to make the transition to the legal field,” Merline recalls.

Her interest in environmental justice also grew when she worked as an AmeriCorps member at an urban forestry nonprofit that focused on increasing tree canopy in underserved and undercanopied neighborhoods before applying to law school.

“While I was in AmeriCorps, I worked with community groups fighting to save trees and increase tree canopy in their neighborhoods, and I saw that lawyers would often be there supporting communities and letting them know what their legal options were,” Merline says. “I saw a path for me to use my science and advocacy background with a new skillset as a lawyer to support communities fighting for environmental justice.”

Merline’s passion for this work helped her to land a research associate position this summer as well. After talking to Professor Brigham Daniels about her interests, he connected her with a professor at UC Irvine’s law school who had a summer position doing research on California climate and environmental justice policy.

“I’m working on providing resources for local governments in California on how they can create or improve their climate action plans and other planning documents to include robust climate and environmental justice metrics and action items,” Merline explains. “I’ve enjoyed knowing that the work I do this summer will end with actual documents and resources that the public and local governments can use to push climate and environmental justice policy further at the local level and hopefully make communities more resilient to climate change.”

The most challenging part of this position is summarizing policy documents from state agencies in a way that public and local government employees can understand and use them.

“Government documents are long and complex, especially when it comes to technical, environmental laws, so it has been a challenge to determine what exactly is the most helpful for the public within a document and how to almost ‘translate’ it into something most people can read and understand,” Merline says. “It is a challenge that I love, though, because I think laws and policies should be much more accessible to the general public.”

Working at UC Irvine has also expanded her understanding of the way environmental laws work in practice.

“This position has also provided me with an opportunity to take a deep dive into California climate and environmental justice laws, regulations, and policies,” she says. “California is a state that is doing so much in this space, so there’s a lot to learn, both in what is working and what could be improved.”

Merline says that S.J. Quinney College of Law offers many opportunities within environmental law, including classes, clinics, fellowships and events.

“I have been able to take a variety of classes, including ones that are more intersectional and less strictly legal, and center environmental law in my studies. The Stegner Center has been particularly crucial in allowing me opportunities to build connections with environmental professionals, both within and outside the law school, and to gain real-world experience in environmental law and policy work,” she says.

Now that graduation is just months away, Merline is excited to pursue a career that allows her to connect her original enthusiasm for environmental science with law.

“I want to work for a local or regional nonprofit or government with a focus on environmental law and environmental justice,” she says. “The law is not always the best avenue to fix environmental injustices, but there is still so much space to improve and change laws that have been used to perpetuate environmental injustices, and that is a space I would love to be in.”