Environmental Champion Peter Lehner ’84 Honored by Public Interest Law Foundation

Student Group Hosts 25th Annual Dinner Celebrating Outstanding Work for the Public Good.
New York, November 24, 2014—It isn’t always glamorous, but fighting to protect the environment is profoundly satisfying work, said Peter Lehner ’84, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) at the Public Interest Law Foundation’s (PILF) 25th annual dinner at the Columbia Club in New York on Nov. 11. Lehner was honored with the Public Interest Achievement Award—and several standing ovations—for his distinguished career in environmental law.
Peter Lehner '84, second from left, receives the Public Interest Achievement Award from (l-r) PILF President Danial Pedraza '16 and dinner co-chairs Stephen Yanni '16 and Sarah Chen '16.
“Environmental law gives you a special sense of your community,” Lehner said to the gathering of students, alumni, and colleagues committed to public interest law. “You work on unglamorous issues in shabby offices; you’re often seen as weird, and you have to develop a thick skin. But it’s a wonderful way to form deep friendships and contribute to the overall vision of social justice.”
Under Lehner’s leadership, the NRDC has become one of the world’s most influential environmental groups, calling for stronger protections of the earth’s wilderness and wildlife as well as cleaner, more sustainable communities. Lehner oversees the organization’s policy stances, advocacy strategies, messaging, political activities, and administration. Previously, he served as chief of the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s office, supervising all state environmental litigation and forging innovative multi-state coalitions targeting key environmental challenges. He also created and led New York City’s environmental prosecution unit and headed up the NRDC’s water program, in addition to teaching Natural Resources Law and teaching environmental law courses at Columbia and sitting on the Law School's Environmental Law Advisory board for many years.
Before setting off on his remarkable career, though, Lehner was a promising student in Professor Peter L. Strauss’ class.
Professor Peter L. Strauss, Lehner, and Professor
Michael B. Gerrard
“Peter was the best student editor I’ve ever had in thought, imagination, and consideration of his writing partner, as well as fidelity to the source material,” said Strauss, the Betts Professor of Law and faculty co-director of PILF, after an introduction from PILF President Daniel Pedraza ’16.

Michael B. Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, praised Lehner’s tireless efforts both in litigation and building momentum for the global environmental movement.

“Preserving what nature has given us is a fight for every generation,” he said. “A lot of people come to law school very idealistic, thinking they’ll go into public interest law. Not all of them do. We are here tonight to honor someone who has done so, brilliantly.”

PILF is an independent, student-run nonprofit of Columbia Law School students and alumni devoted to public interest advocacy. Founded in 1980, the organization has raised over $2,000,000 to help fund students dedicated to working in public interest, government, and the nonprofit sector and to fund community public interest law organizations selected each year through a competitive application process. Annual fundraising, approximately $100,000 each year, is divided equally between student assistance and community grants. In addition to its annual dinner, PILF organizes the popular Bid For Justice Auction each spring, the Dean’s Cup basketball game, and a bookstore of used law books.
Generations of Columbia Law School's public interest law community mingle
at the Columbia Club in midtown Manhattan.

At the dinner, Ellen P. Chapnick, dean for Social Justice Initiatives, said PILF has long played a key role advancing public interest and government work at Columbia Law School. Jane M. Spinak, Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law and PILF faculty co-director, thanked attendees, alumni, and supporters for enabling the organization’s ongoing work.

“There is so much to do to maintain the kind of country and world we want to live in,” Spinak said. “Some do it for their practice, some do pro bono work, which is so important, and others give generously to make this kind of work possible.”

Sarah Chen ’16 and Stephen Yanni ’16, co-chairs of PILF’s annual dinner, concluded the evening with a final standing ovation for the honoree.

PILF has presented the Public Interest Achievement Award each year since 1991. Previous recipients include Rachel B. Tiven ’03, Preet Bharara ’93, Eric H. Holder, Jr. ’76, and Donald B. Verrilli, Jr ’83.

For more information about PILF, including its application process for community grants, visit the organization’s homepage.
Lehner poses with PILF members and leaders of Columbia Law School's public interest law community.