Class of 2012
Ben Tettlebaum ’12 came to Cornell Law School to find an intellectual challenge, a different sort of lifestyle, and a new way to create positive change.
Following his undergraduate career, Tettlebaum worked in outdoor education for nearly 10 years. His love of nature and the outdoors drew him to Ithaca’s rural landscape, but the reputation of Cornell Law School and its faculty finalized his decision to move to Ithaca and go to law school.
“I grew up on a farm. I’d rather be in a rural area than an urban area, and Cornell is one of the few top-tier law schools that’s in a relatively rural area,” he says. “I was impressed by the attention to detail that the administration at the Law School paid to teaching.”
As a former teacher, Tettlebaum held positions with the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wilderness Medicine Institute, among others. His students ranged from undergraduates to corporate CEOs and NASA crews. Drawing from ecology, environmental studies, and hard technical wilderness skills, Tettlebaum used the natural environment to teach team building and leadership.
Therefore, it was no surprise that during his three years as a law student, he focused on environmental law and found a way to tie his past as an outdoor education and leadership instructor to his views on the legal system.
“I was interested in affecting change on a broader scale, to understand the law within our society. It opens a lot of doors from the very small to the very large,” Tettlebaum explains. “It demystifies a lot of our governmental processes, how our communities function, and how local government works.”
He spent two years as president of Cornell’s Environmental Law Society, where he worked to increase its programming and influence. Tettlebaum also led composting efforts, conservation workshops, and an energy conference across campus.
Collaborative sustainability work at Cornell and its Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future provided a way for the Environmental Law Society to forge connections between the students and faculty at the Law School and the other departments across campus.
“I think the law is a crucial piece for research development, for getting new ideas out into the world, whether it’s with copyright or patent law, or just knowing the process that leads to a successful new development,” Tettlebaum says.
To forge those connections, he encouraged students and faculty to come together for society-sponsored lunches and interdisciplinary conservation workshops. His goal was to spark conversations on environmental topics, like clean energy and clean technology, among several different schools and colleges.
These conversations, even on a small scale, are important in any environmental issue, Tettlebaum explains. So in spring 2011, he organized and led a much larger-scale event—a three-day energy conference that involved the Cornell and Ithaca communities, experts from across the country, and more than 60 speakers and panels.
Throughout the conference, Tettlebaum found himself acting as a neutral party, balancing both sides of the hot-button hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, issue. Working with the local community was his introduction to the effects that environmental issues have on local politics, he says.
“The idea of the conference was not to just have a one-sided view of the issue, but to bring in people in the fracking industry and people from the grassroots movement who opposed fracking,” he says. “As the organizer, I had to have both sides understand that we were a neutral conference and that it was important for them all to be represented.”
The event was a highly publicized success.
“The conference gave me the ability to be in a directorial role. It was a nice contrast to law school, which is often a very solitary pursuit,” Tettlebaum says. “I was given the opportunity as a student to lead a really collaborative process.”
After graduation, Tettlebaum will clerk for a judge in the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Kansas City, Missouri, his home state, for one year. After that, Tettlebaum says he will probably stay in the legal profession. He is committed to working in public interest and environmental law.
As for his long-term plans, Tettlebaum hopes to connect the dots between his work in education, the legal practice, and the outdoors to develop a business of his own. He may also come back to Cornell to help develop an environmental litigation clinic or environmental law center for future Cornellians.
“When I go to an organization or institution I like to invest in it because I feel like I’m a part of it now. I would love to see my ideas coming to fruition to further develop the program … whether it’s me or someone else who makes it happen.”
While Ithaca’s scenic beauty gave Tettlebaum a place to wander outdoors, Cornell made him confident in his life and career choices. His time in the Cornell Law School also presented him with opportunities to stand out as a leader.
“Law school wisdom says you’ll be very different coming out than coming in. I think it’s a little different for me because I’m an older student and my ethical grounding, philosophy on life, and belief structure were formed prior to coming,” Tettlebaum explains. “That said, I really think the education I got from Cornell Law School, from the faculty, was probably better than anything I could have gotten anywhere else.”