February 28, 2017

Profile: Chelsea Punian ’18

Punian spent six months working for the Center for Food Safety and intends to focus her legal career on food, agriculture and public health.

Over 250 Lewis & Clark law students complete externships each year in the U.S. and abroad. Here, we we ask second-year student Chelsea Punian a few questions about her experience working for the Center for Food Safety in Portland in summer and fall, 2016.

How did you become interested in food safety and/or food law?

As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, I pursued a Science, Technology and Environmental Public Policy minor. One of my seminar classes required students to write a thesis based on an underrepresented area in environmental public policy. I chose to research confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) because it is a topic that is sometimes overlooked when discussing clean water and clean air issues. Through the research for my thesis, I came across some great litigation being handled by the Center for Food Safety. It is something that I continued learning about and became incredibly interested in and wanted to pursue in law school.

How did you come to work for CFS?

Once in law school, I applied to CFS through the Public Service Career Fair at Lewis & Clark and was chosen to be the summer clerk in CFS’s Portland office. Luckily, they asked me to stay on for the fall as an extern, so I would be able to continue working on cutting-edge food and agricultural law cases and continue the projects I worked on over the summer. I was paid during the summer, but received externship credit in the fall. The class component that goes along with the externship really made me look at my work experience in a different light, because I took the time to analyze my experiences and I was able to discuss certain things with my on-site externship mentor that I didn’t think to discuss over the summer when I was clerking.

What type of work did you do in your position and/or what responsibilities did you have?

I worked on many different projects ranging from GE organisms to pesticide issues. I researched and wrote memos and I had the opportunity to speak directly to client organizations and their members to draft standing declarations. I also worked on policy issues, both nationally and locally here in the Pacific Northwest.

What are the most significant, or rewarding, things you were able to work on?

The most rewarding things I was able to work on were the organics memos related to the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). This is a new area of law that has grown exponentially in the past 20 years with very little case law. I really had to apply my newly acquired knowledge from my environmental and administrative law courses (which I was taking concurrently) to draft these memos that were crucial for CFS’s potential litigation.

What area of law are you hoping to practice when you graduate from law school?

I would like to practice environmental law with a focus on food, agriculture and public health.

How do you expect the work you did in your externship to impact your future career plans or interests?

CFS was the ideal externship for me. I gained a lot of experience in environmental litigation and learned a lot about the application of, and intersection between, law and policy. I think the amazing work and experience that I had at CFS will be beneficial to me, not just in the upcoming years as I apply for jobs after law school, but for the rest of my life.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience as an extern?

The work itself was incredibly rewarding, but my amazing experience can also be credited to the two attorneys in the Portland office who not only mentored me through specific work assignments, but also both acted as positive influences in helping me pursue my goal of becoming an environmental advocate.

Also, I believe that externing is a crucial part of the law school experience. For me, externing over the school year helped to further hone my time management and multi-tasking skills. It also gave me real world application of the classes I was taking during that semester, such as environmental and administrative law.

What other practical skills opportunities have you participated in, or plan to pursue, while in law school?

I am currently a member of Environmental Law review and am working for the Earthrise Law Center clinic. I can see myself bolstering my oral advocacy skills by competing in either moot court or mock trial during my 3L year.

This summer, I accepted a position at the Center for Disease Control where I will be working in their public health law program on a variety of issues, a large one being the intersection between food safety and public health.