Innovation, Creativity, and Public Interest Law

Sarah Cinquemani, '18

Sarah Cinquemani graduated from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in 2018. She started her career as a New York State Excelsior Fellow with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In October 2019, Sarah became an Assistant Attorney with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany. In her role, she serves as a program attorney for the Division of Water working on the NYC Watershed and water quality issues.

What brought you to law school?

I have my Political Science professors at Adelphi University to thank for planting the idea of going to law school and studying environmental law in my head. Originally, I planned to go into the public policy field, maybe earn a Masters in Public Administration, but through my college courses I learned that environmental policy work takes years, even decades, to develop and implement and thought environmental law would be a more effective way to make a positive impact on the environment. Looking back, it is a bit funny because developing law- either through legislation or the courts- takes years, even decades. And now that I am a public policy attorney, I’ve come to appreciate that developing policy takes time and public input, but I recognize the really important work is implementing the policies effectively, so that they address the environmental concerns and help the public.

Why did you choose Pace? 

I only applied to law schools with environmental law programs; so naturally, Pace was at the top of my list. In addition, Pace's close proximity to NYC and to my family in central Connecticut significantly factored into my decision to come here. I also received a substantial scholarship and met with environmental faculty from whom I was excited to learn.

Were you always interested in public interest work?  

I didn't know when I came to law school what 'public interest' work was, but I quickly realized it was exactly the type of work I envisioned myself doing. I saw myself working for a state or local government agency where attorneys work with scientists, engineers and policy specialists in a more holistic process to protect the environment within the constraints of the law. I am grateful to be working in a position where I get to do exactly that.

How did the Public Interest Law Center assist you during your time at Pace?

I can't say enough about the dedication of Elyse Diamond. She reviewed countless cover letters and iterations of my resume, helped me with interview preparation, checked in with me after interviews, and ultimately assisted me in making the decision about accepting the position as a NYS Excelsior Fellow. Even after law school, Elyse has kept in contact, checking in on me in my new role.

What specific experience at Pace helped you prepare you for a career in public interest law?  

 All of my summer internships were with government agencies; my first summer I was at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene where I gained confidence appearing in administrative hearings representing the Department in restaurant health code violation matters. I also interned at the NYS Attorney General's Office in the Environmental Protection Bureau where I gained a better understanding of the breadth of issues that come up when dealing with environmental cases; I was exposed to real property, bankruptcy and corporate law when researching questions for issues attorney’s raised. I was fortunate to be selected as a Federal Judicial Honors student where I interned in Judge Kenneth Karas's chambers in the Southern District of New York in White Plains, and I also worked at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic representing Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization, where I learned from attorneys who are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about protecting our environment and improved my oral advocacy skills through the intensive mock trial and working on a case where I appeared before a judge in the Brooklyn Supreme Court.

 Can you describe your career path since graduation?

Before graduating from Pace, I was offered a spot as a NYS Excelsior Service Fellow, but all I knew about the position was that I would be placed with a state agency in Albany for a two year fellowship. I didn't learn until early June that I would be working at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, which was my top choice for a placement. I moved to Albany and began working in the Office of General Counsel in early September 2018 in the Bureau of Water and Natural Resources. In my position as a public policy attorney, I work on water issues related to the NYC Watershed, impaired water bodies, emerging contaminants, drafting rule making documents, and providing legal advice to technical staff on matters related to the Clean Water Act and the NYS Environmental Conservation Law. In my role, I interact with other state agencies, EPA, and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection as well as local organizations. In October, I accepted a permanent position in that same role as an Assistant Attorney. I am excited to grow in my role and take on new responsibilities.

 Please share what you find most rewarding about working in public interest law?

Working in a state agency where we are constantly asked to do more with less requires innovation and pushes everyone to develop creative solutions.  I learn from experts in the environmental field every day and I am exposed to technical areas like engineering, toxicology, and forestry which feeds my desire to ask more questions and try to learn as much as I can from the people I work with.

 In your opinion, what qualities makes a “good” public interest lawyer/advocate?

Someone who does not lose sight of the cause they are fighting for, which is harder than it sounds. At times, I’ve found myself stuck in the weeds researching a legal question, but I am reinvigorated when I remember that the work I am doing will help people and their communities. When researching doesn’t lead to a clear answer, the ability to think creatively to develop a workable solution is another necessary skill for a public interest attorney.