Ellie Pepper

Alumni Profile: Elly Pepper, L'10

February 9, 2021
Alum charts her own path in environmental protection law

Elly Pepper, L’10, started her career with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as a wildlife advocate in 2011. Over 10 years later, as deputy director for international wildlife conservation, she’s found a way to chart her own path while pursuing her passion to protect threatened and endangered species and habits, all through legal policy work.

From a young age, Pepper knew she wanted to pursue environmental protection at a professional level. She majored in environmental studies and government at Bowdoin College, but wasn’t exactly sure how to combine her passion for wildlife and the environment with her skillset. “I really enjoyed writing, research, and advocacy, which is why I decided that law school would be the best path,” said Pepper.

It was the faculty who attracted Pepper to Richmond Law as her ultimate choice. “[Richmond Law] has some of the best professors in the country,” she said. “There were no limits when it came to their time.” While Joel Eisen and Noah Sachs provided her with a stronger foundation in environmental law, others helped her explore and rule out other areas of interest, or provided general career guidance. “So many of my professors influenced me in really positive ways,” said Pepper, including Hank Chambers, Corinna Lain, and Clark Williams. “Their fascination with the subject matter is infectious.”

An internship over the summer of her 2L year proved to be a professional turning point for Pepper, when she met one of her life’s mentors at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “People act like [finding a mentor] is an easy thing, but it’s not,” said Pepper. “I got really lucky. My supervisor at EDF showed me that there was this whole part of environmental law that I hadn’t really explored.” Pepper spent her time with the EDF researching a law that would divert some of the penalties in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to Gulf coast restoration efforts. In the process, she learned that, to pursue a career in environmental law, “I didn’t have to litigate. I didn’t have to work in a law firm on environmental regulation. I could actually write and push through laws.”

After graduating, Pepper started her career in environmental policy law at NRDC in government affairs, providing “a strong basis from which to later explore state and international advocacy as well,” she explained. “While I learned many incredible lessons and skills working in government affairs, I was really interested in international environmental policy,” said Pepper. “After a while, I was able to shape my career path to turn to focus on that more.” She and a colleague formed a new initiative at NRDC to advocate for international species protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), including ivory bans. She and her team – which expanded to NRDC’s Beijing, China office – also worked on domestic ivory bans, including in the United States and in China. When China banned its domestic ivory market in 2017, it was “one of the most exciting moments of my career,” said Pepper.

The ivory trade is one moving part of Pepper’s broader focus on biodiversity initiatives. “A lot of people are focused on the climate crisis,” said Pepper. “But the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis go hand-in-hand.” United Nations scientists have predicted that 1 million species currently stand to go extinct – and “species loss can have a devastating impact on ecosystems and human life,” Pepper explained.

With her colleagues at the NRDC, Pepper is using her legal skills to advocate for positive change. And in the process, she gets the chance to live out one of her life’s passion through her career.

Advice Corner

Pepper usually tells students interested in environmental law a few key tips. “It’s best to start broad,” she advises, and build those skills – persuasive writing, lobbying skills, some advocacy experience – that can translate across multiple industries. Plus, she adds, “at a lot of places you can make a job what you want. If you know where you want to work, get your foot in the door. You can really shape your career.”