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"Debriefing The Cornell 2011 Energy Conference: 'Gas Drilling, Sustainability & Energy Policy: Searching for Common Ground'" by Ben Tettlebaum and Alexis Saba

Debriefing the Cornell 2011 Energy Conference:
Gas Drilling, Sustainability & Energy Policy: Searching for Common Ground

by Ben Tettlebaum and Alexis Saba

In a world of increasing risk to our natural resources, it is incumbent upon lawyers to perform their duties with an eye to ecological sustainability. Due diligence to conservation can begin early in one's career, ideally in law school. The Cornell Environmental Law Society (ELS) aims to advance this mission by collaborating with students and faculty from across the University and with the local and regional communities. We saw an educational opportunity in the recent discussions surrounding natural gas development and energy policy--and decided to bring together various stakeholders in a conference this spring titled Gas Drilling, Sustainability & Energy Policy: Searching for Common Ground.

Over three days, 50 speakers on nine panels and three keynote speakers addressed cutting-edge issues relating to our energy future. This was the largest event held at Cornell Law School in the recent years with more than 500 people in attendance from 12 states and Canada.

What ELS hopes to impart on law students is that they can bring about substantive change while in law school. This positive change can take the form of advocating and ushering in new programming at their legal institution, engaging the regional community in a crucial dialogue, and collaborating with the wealth of resources at their university or in their locality. A conference also presents the opportunity for law students to network with practitioners, academics, and activists as well as to get to know their peers in a new context. Fortunately, with the 2011 Energy Conference, ELS laid the foundation for achieving all of these objectives.

Below, we highlight the nuts and bolts for organizing a conference. Infused within the description are illustrative examples from the ELS 2011 Energy Conference.

Getting Started

Law students are busy. Planning and implementing a successful, large-scale conference takes a tremendous amount of time; we got started a year ago. Importantly, students should remember that a conference is both a means and an end. It serves as a vehicle for promoting substantive programming at one's law school and furthering the conversation and scholarship on the chosen area of law. We chose the topic of shale gas development and energy policy because we care about the issues and knew they would generate publicity.

Organizing a conference is like running a small business. The president of the group spearheading this effort can be the keeper of the vision--the CEO. But early on, a core group of students should all take ownership of the project to disperse the workload, from publicity and sponsorship to technical direction and volunteer coordination. We worked hard to get buy-in from the Law School administration and key faculty members as well as the University. A detailed, up-to-date proposal was important.


We broke down conference planning into a number of areas: (1) speakers and moderators, (2) fundraising, (3) publicity, (4) press, (5) volunteers, and (6) facilities (Audio-Visual and logistics). Students will require assistance from many administrators and staff at their institution. We found this to be a great opportunity to get to know the people who actually make Cornell run. Consider forming an advisory committee.


Students need to compile a list of speaker invitees early on. Our conference was interdisciplinary in scope, drawing participants from law, business, science, and government. We were fortunate to have access to excellent faculty at Cornell University working on the issue of shale gas development from the geologic, legal, environmental, and economic perspectives. About half of our 50+ speakers were from Cornell, which also helped defray costs.

Finding keynote speakers proved the most challenging. Accordingly, students would be well served to start procuring these participants in the beginning. Our opening keynote speaker was actually chosen less because of name recognition and more because of her substantive work on the projected economic impacts of shale gas development in New York State. She is an economic geographer who teaches at Cornell. One of our closing keynote speakers was United States Congressman Maurice Hinchey. The other was Deputy Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Gary Guzy (who is also conveniently a Cornell Law School alumnus).

Fortunately, we had fantastic speakers to fill our panels, which ranged in size from three to eight panelists, including a moderator for each panel. Our capstone panel of the conference, Searching for Justice, explored the limits of the law in dealing with environmental legal actions. Speakers included Brad Marten, founder and managing partner of Marten Law PLLC; John Kassel, president of the Conservation Law Foundation; Roger Martella, partner at Sidley Austin LLP and former general counsel of the U.S. EPA; and Victoria Switzer, a resident of Dimock, PA, who was personally affected by gas drilling. This panel, like the others, had representatives from multiple sides of the energy debate and kept the conversation lively and spirited via directed questions from our moderator and audience members. Clear, firm directions and plenty of pre-conference planning led to engaging and substantive panel discussions.


We raised roughly $31,000 for the Energy Conference. This is no small task while managing schoolwork. Success depends on developing a relationship with the school's director of alumni affairs, creating solid fundraising materials, reaching out to other campus groups and departments, and applying for grants or soliciting donations from external sources.


We worked with our Information Technology department to create web pages on the law school's server. This proved crucial to registering attendees, compiling a database, advertising the conference, and promoting recent scholarship on shale gas development and environmental law. Students should also be prepared to work closely with their communications department to prepare digital and hard copy conference materials. Of course, word-of-mouth, even in this digital age, is still what often generates the most publicity. We coordinated with community members in our town and region to spread the word and, more importantly, to help develop the substantive topics that the conference would address. Allowing the community (on both sides of the debate) to feel included in this event was crucial to its success.

Our conference was free and open to the public. Many of our panels also offered CLE credits at no cost. To make this possible requires a concerted effort by the conference committee to fundraise, prepare extensive informational materials, and communicate effectively with participants and attendees. We managed to save costs and time by having nearly all of our pre-conference materials distributed electronically.


Press will be key for students interested in establishing longer lasting changes at their law school or generating discussion that can outlive the conference itself. Be creative in reaching out to local, regional, and national press, and begin preparing materials a few months in advance of the conference.


Without volunteers, the logistics of the conference would have been impossible. We were fortunate to have more than 25 students from across campus and a number of community members devote time pre-conference and at the conference itself.

Facilities (and other technical needs)

This is perhaps the most crucial and potentially overlooked aspect of conference planning. Students must develop technical systems necessary to make the conference run smoothly. These somewhat behind-the-scenes aspects allow the substantive issues of the conference to take center stage. This not only will make the difference between a mediocre and an excellent event but also will provide a means for preserving the conference proceedings.


If the conference itself is successful but the conversation ends when the curtain closes, then those thousands of hours of volunteer work have, to some extent, been for naught. From the very beginning, student planners must consider how they will use the conference as a vehicle for change.

Because we drew together faculty and professionals from myriad disciplines, ELS was able to establish connections and initiate collaborations that will offer benefits for years to come. Equally important, many Cornell alumni took notice of the opportunity for expanding environmental law programming at Cornell Law School. Last but not least, we helped further a discussion about the consequences of shale gas development, an important topic for New York State. The conference exposed lawyers and law students alike to the rich potential for substantive legal work in this area.
Alexis Saba is a third-year student at Cornell Law School interested in pursuing a career in environmental law. She has been studying legal issues associated with natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale for two years through Cornell's Water Law and Land Use Law Clinics and an externship with the Ithaca-based Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc. Alexis spent last summer with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York and the prior summer with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 2 office.

Ben W. Tettlebaum is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School interested in pursuing a career in public interest environmental and natural resources law. This summer, Ben will work for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica, CA, and next fall, Ben will extern at the Earthjustice Rocky Mountain office. Prior to attending law school, Ben worked for 10 years as an educator and mountain guide in the very lands he intends to serve through his legal career.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 1, 2011 9:41 PM.

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