A profile on Richard Lazarus
By Peter Reuell
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Richard Lazarus was often asked why he had chosen to pursue a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.A. in Economics at the same time.
His standard answer then—that the dual degrees were “pre-environmental law”—nearly always drew the same response: “What’s environmental law?”
These days, however, neither Lazarus, the Aibel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School (HLS), nor the field of environmental law needs any introduction.
As one of the pioneers of the field, which applies the law in the service of the environment, Lazarus has distinguished himself as one of the premier legal minds in the nation. Now he is turning his attention to Harvard—where he himself was once a law student—and efforts to train the next generation of lawyers.
“There’s no question that, for me, the primary tug in coming back here… was the students,” Lazarus said recently. “If I blur my eyes just a little bit, they look like my classmates. Their optimism, their skill set, and their commitment are very similar to what I remember from several decades ago, and that’s really fun.”
Though he is known in academia largely for his scholarly work, Lazarus has also served in the Justice
Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division and the Solicitor General’s Office. Most recently, he was appointed by President Obama to serve as the Executive Director of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and principal author of the commission’s report.
“If you read the report, I think we surprised some people, because we were initially criticized as being too green,” Lazarus says. “But we concluded that deep-water drilling can be done, and done safely. It’s not a technology that’s beyond our reach, and it can produce enormous benefits to the nation,” he continues, “but it has to be done with more rigorous oversight and testing and protocols and inspectors, none of which is unduly expensive—you just have to do it right.”
Despite his detours into public service, Lazarus says his primary role at Harvard is as a teacher. His ambitions for environmental law at HLS, however, extend beyond the walls of the classroom.
“My goal, and one that played a major role in my coming here, is to build a broader
environmental law program with Cox Professor of Law Jody Freeman and with Wendy Jacobs, the director of the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic,” Lazarus says. “We want this to be a program that, if law- and policy-makers are facing an issue, they think of contacting Harvard.”
“We have all the ingredients now, and we’re working to build something that extends the scholarship and brings the classes and students together in a coherent academic program,” Lazarus continues. “Our plan is to build nothing less than the best environmental law program in the country."
This article originally appeared in Environment@Harvard, Volume 4 Issue 1.