Cecilia Segal first realized she wanted to be involved in the environmental protection movement when she took an environmental science class in high school. Years later, she’d step into the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline fight as an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Segal was recently one of three NRDC attorneys representing environmental groups in Northern Plains Resource Council v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana. The court rejected a key permit issued by the Corps for the project in April 2020, citing the agency’s failure to properly review the project’s impact on endangered species.
Segal reached a few litigation milestones while working on the Keystone cases. In 2018, she presented oral arguments in court for the first time in Northern Plains Resource Council v. Shannon. She also served as the lead author on a brief for the first time while working on Keystone cases.
Even though things were moving rapidly, Segal said she learned the value of taking a pause and reflecting on where the Keystone cases were going. The litigation was just one piece of the pipeline dispute—much of the progress came from the decade-long fight waged by local ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities, she said.
Being involved in the case was rewarding for the “amazing litigation experience” and the “tangible benefits we were able to obtain,” Segal said. The Biden administration revoked a key permit for the pipeline in January, and TC Energy has said it would suspend work on the project.
After arriving at Harvard Law School, Segal said she took as many environmental law classes as she could. When she had the chance to interview Nancy Marks, senior litigation counsel at NRDC, for a project with the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society and listen to her speak about her work, Segal said she was certain that’s where she wanted to end up.
She was hired at the organization in 2017 after working as an intern at other environmental organizations and clerking at the Second Circuit. She immediately was thrown into litigating against the Trump administration’s rollback of various environmental regulations.
“The fact that I got to work every day and do something about it was pretty phenomenal,” she said.
Working on the Keystone pipeline fight was challenging, she said, because of all the moving pieces and permits involved. “In KXL it feels like every day there’s some new surprise that we need to be able to respond to,” she said.
Her work on KXL included anticipating when permits would be issued and developing a legal strategy to respond. Sometimes it involved drafting part of a brief or editing what someone else had written.
Jackie Prange, senior attorney and managing litigator at NRDC, worked with Segal for more than four years on KXL cases. Prange said the experience is like “working with a brilliant best friend.”
Segal was the “functional heart of the team,” according to Prange. In addition to her other work, she made sure deadlines were met and formatting rules were followed.
“That type of work doesn’t get a lot of glory, but it is incredibly important in litigation,” Prange said. “I don’t think the terms ‘proactive’ or ‘self-starter’ truly convey the extent of her talent.”
Segal’s parents, both from Argentina, always emphasized the importance of education and getting the best opportunities, Segal said. By going to Harvard, Segal—born in Canada and raised in Boston—said she knew she was “living their American dream.”
Segal is passionate about mentoring the younger generation of attorneys and trying to encourage more diversity in the field. While law school may direct students to more traditional routes, Segal said law students and young lawyers should follow their passion.
“Really just hold on to your convictions if you want to pursue a career in environmental law,” she said.
One of Segal’s favorite aspects of the job is working on a cohesive team that is dedicated to mentoring young attorneys. She said NRDC has an “unbelievably caring and supportive work environment, which is rare among litigators.”
“I couldn’t have imagined a better place to start my legal career,” Segal said.