Real World Law

Professor Amy Sinden likes to keep it real. Whether she’s leading an upper-level seminar on climate change, writing critically about the use of economic theory in shaping environmental law, or speaking on behalf of the Center for Progressive Reform, Sinden grounds all of her efforts in an appreciation for the real world impact of law. It’s why she became a lawyer and why she’s here at Temple Law.

Sinden didn’t originally intend to go into law. After graduating from Swarthmore College with a degree in biology and taking some time to explore the world, she took a position as a paralegal at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. She was drawn to CLS by the “social consciousness of the work that they did there” – enough so that she was eventually persuaded to matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School with the specific goal of becoming a CLS lawyer. After graduating summa cum laude she did exactly that, building a practice filled with the daily challenges of poverty in Philadelphia, including representing parents in child abuse and neglect cases. It was grinding stuff, and yet it was the same stuff that her clients lived with every day. “I loved my work at CLS, and I learned a lot from it. As a feminist, someone who had learned a lot of feminist theory, it was eye-opening to represent someone – a woman –accused of being an abuser. The reality was that she, my client, was often the least powerful person in the room.”

The lessons Sinden learned there would become the foundations of her approach to lawyering and, eventually, legal academics as well. “First, I learned that you can’t judge a system from the outside. Theory must always be grounded in practice. There is a danger in approaching anything from an entirely academic perspective,” she explains. Sinden took these lessons along with her when she accepted a position practicing environmental law with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Seattle. Since the environmental litigation they did took place almost entirely in federal court, Earthjustice was intrigued by Sinden’s two federal clerkships – one with Chief Judge John F. Gerry of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey and a second with Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. And Sinden was equally intrigued by the opportunity to practice in a field where much of the heavy lifting was done on paper—in motions for summary judgment–rather than in the courtroom. “I had begun to miss having room to think about the bigger issues in a case,” she explains. “I wanted to be able to really delve into something instead of having five minutes to fight it out in front of a judge.”

After four years practicing environmental law in Seattle and then back in Philadelphia, Sinden again began to feel the desire for more contemplative space. She remembered some advice from one of her former law professors, Lani Guinier, that she should consider teaching. Sinden’s thoughts turned quickly to Temple, whose “real world, real law” approach resonated with the lessons she had learned at CLS. “I had always thought that Temple would be a great place to be,” Sinden says. “Many members of the faculty had spent a lot of time in the real world, and the institution was clearly committed to the idea of offering a route into the legal profession for everyone, including those who hadn’t been born into privilege.”

Since joining the Temple Law faculty in 2001, Sinden has established herself not only as a rising star in legal academia but also as a leading voice in environmental policy. Her academic writing, recognized as among the best in the nation, has criticized the misuse of economic theory in environmental law, arguing against the use of cost-benefit analysis in environmental standard setting and countering claims that private property rights can solve environmental problems in the absence of government regulation. At its root, her argument is really not much different than one she might have made in her days at CLS: that when we fail to take into account the real world consequences of our laws, particularly on the powerless – on poor women, on developing nations, on our planet – we fail in our responsibility as lawyers and as citizens. For Professor Amy Sinden, this is the meaning of real world law, and it’s what Temple Law is all about.