Theory at Work
The Energetic Environmental Advocate: Alexandra Klass brings a wealth of field experience to her work inside and outside of the classroom.
Alexandra Klass spent a decade in private practice before launching a high-profile academic career. “It was not the normal path, but for me it worked out really well,” she says. Now a Distinguished McKnight University Professor and faculty director of the environmental and energy law concentration, Klass is building upon that broad swath of knowledge, both scholarly and practical, and sharing it with local, state, and federal bar associations and such organizations as the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and the University’s Institute on the Environment.
Environmental issues first piqued her interest while she was studying law at the University of Wisconsin and searching for a practice area that was “fascinating, substantive, and involved litigation as well as regulatory and compliance work.” Although Klass considered pursuing an academic career, perhaps even a Ph.D. in legal history, she realized that she had never had a job in practice. “I was trained to be a lawyer, and I wanted to see what that was like,” she says.
In 1993, after a federal judicial clerkship, she joined the Minneapolis firm of Dorsey & Whitney, working in its environmental, natural resources, and energy practice group. By the time she left in 2004, she was a partner at the firm and had handled trial and appellate cases ranging from contaminated property and wetlands to mining, zoning, and eminent domain.
“It was a very supportive environment. I had great cases and wonderful colleagues, but I decided to see if I could make the transition to teaching and writing,” Klass says. Bringing myriad skills and perspectives into the classroom has served her well. “By actually being a litigator, I have different insights into the interests of parties bringing suits, into the corporate cultures where decisions are made, and into the back-and-forth between government regulators and regulated parties. I also get to write about what I know. What I saw in textbooks often wasn’t consistent with what I saw in practice.”
Being able to write and teach in the same community where she practiced also helps Klass enhance her classes with guest speakers, introduce students to former colleagues and mentoring opportunities, and assume leadership roles in professional associations and nonprofit organizations. In 2017, the Minnesota State Bar Association presented her with the Eldon G. Kaul Distinguished Service Award for her contributions to Minnesota’s environmental, natural resources, and energy law.
“What I really like about Alex is that she is not only a spectacular legal scholar but also is so ready and eager to think about what law and policy mean in a broader context,” says Jessica Hellmann, director of the University’s Institute on the Environment, where Klass has served as a fellow. “The environment doesn’t live in the law school, nor in science and engineering, nor in biological sciences. It’s everywhere.” Characterizing Klass as “rigorous, friendly, and creative,” Hellman lauds her ability to interact with colleagues from various disciplines and devise alternative solutions to diverse challenges. “For her, it’s not about the law per se, but about how people use the law and what it means to energy transition and public policy.”
Klass’s work at the intersection of law and policy has also earned accolades from Kathryn Hoffman ’06, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. Klass rejoined the MCEA board in 2018 and currently chairs the legal committee and serves on the executive committee. Her in-depth legal expertise and academic work on the public trust doctrine, for example, has been “really helpful to us,” especially in such ongoing cases as that involving White Bear Lake and the DNR, says Hoffman. “She is kind, supportive, and a great listener, which helps her understand the competing needs within our work. There are lots of reasons to bring claims or not, and she is good at navigating that.”
Klass says she is proud to be part of MCEA, which has grown considerably and gained public support as it takes on copper-nickel mining, clean energy transition, feedlot, and air pollution challenges, among many other issues. She also likes involving her students, offering them experience beyond the confines of the classroom. In fact, working with students—as co-authors, research assistants, summer interns—has become a career highlight.
“I love seeing them get excited about legal issues and things going on in the world,” she says. “I also love seeing them graduate and get experience and jobs they enjoy. There are lots of opportunities out there in the environmental and energy law sectors.”