New nonprofit law firm gives residents and the environment a fighting chance

Fair Shake Environmental Services opened its doors in Lawrenceville this month to do just that, give residents of modest means a fighting chance in cases of environmental law.

The nonprofit firm is the first in the country to offer discounted legal services to those who otherwise couldn’t afford the high cost of a legal battle in cases such as when their homes are polluted by an outside source.

This is an area that often has been overlooked, especially when it comes to environmental justice, says Emily Collins, executive director of Fair Shake. The nonprofit firm will initially provide services to residents of Pennsylvania and Ohio and has plans to expand.

Collins, a former faculty member at University of Pittsburgh’s Law Clinic, pitched the idea successfully to several Pittsburgh foundations. The Pitt Clinic was only able to serve about 10 percent of all the people who were calling, she says.

“These people couldn’t afford to pay top dollar for services, but they could pay something. And there are plenty of young attorneys who want to practice environmental law and learn a business model to service modest means clients,” she says.

Fair Shake was made possible through the backing of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, The Heinz Endowments, the Colcom Foundation, and the George Gund Foundation.

“We are serving the underserved,” says Collins. “We charge fees but we take our clients’ ability to pay into consideration.”

While the environmental issues surrounding the proliferation of gas drilling in the region come easily to mind, Collins says any environmental injustice qualifies for support, from residents with contaminated water wells to local governments and businesses dealing with storm water and other issues.

“We’re really environmental generalists,” Collins says. “It’s really about what a client needs.”

The firm has opened offices in Lawrenceville and Akron. Ohio. A third is planned for West Virginia.

Says Philip Johnson, senior officer for The Heinz Endowments’ Environment Program: “We’ve seen the good work that the attorneys heading this project have done in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, and we’re excited to support an initiative that will provide these vital services.”