Faculty Focus: Julie Youngman
“Litigation is necessarily confrontational, and I’m definitely looking forward to the collaborative nature of academia, the chance to explore ideas that interest me, and the interaction with students.”
Julie Youngman, who has practiced law for 20 years, first as a partner at Ellis & Winters LLP and then as a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, has now joined the Williams School faculty as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Business Administration, where she will teach undergraduate courses in business law.
Youngman’s appointment comes at the same time she’s settling one of the most important cases of her career. In June, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and Youngman’s clients, the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA) and Defenders of Wildlife, announced a deal that resolved a long, contentious dispute over plans for constructing a massive bridge and highway project connecting Bodie and Hatteras Islands on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The failing Bonner Bridge, which currently connects the two islands, has been slated to be replaced since at least 1990, but one proposal after another has stalled or died over the last 25 years. The transportation route runs down the center of the Outer Banks, which are thin, unstable barrier islands that constantly shift and erode under the force of ocean tides and storms. In recent years, hurricanes have destroyed sections of the ocean-front highway, disrupting access to the bridge and preventing tourists and residents from reaching Hatteras Island for weeks at a time, while ongoing efforts to repair and maintain the route were costing millions and threatening the wildlife habitat of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge at the north end of the island.
NCDOT and Youngman’s clients disagreed on whether to replace the bridge and highway in their current location, or build a longer replacement bridge that bypassed the refuge and the most unstable portions of the island. Youngman and her clients contended that the longer bridge would provide more secure access for people, spare the wildlife refuge from future deterioration, and be less expensive in the long run. The dispute led to two lawsuits, culminating in Youngman arguing before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, that NCDOT and its federal counterpart had not taken adequate steps to protect the wildlife refuge as required by several federal laws.
In August of 2014, the Court of Appeals issued a split decision in the case, agreeing with Youngman and her team on the application of one of those laws. That’s when Youngman and her adversaries began talking. As one of her clients, Desiree Sorenson-Groves of the NWRA, told reporters, “It took a lot of face-to-face meetings. It took a lot of trust building…. You have to build relationships with people.”
Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata credited Youngman with doing the “yeomen’s work” it took to reach a compromise that not only protected wildlife in Pea Island National Refuge but was also good for business. Youngman worked hand in hand with NCDOT general counsel Shelly Blake to hammer out an agreement that was acceptable to all sides. The two women waded into the waters of Oregon Inlet at the foot of the bridge, alongside their clients and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, to announce the deal.
“The solution that was better for the environment happened also to be better for businesses and people,” said Youngman.
In addition to teaching business law to undergraduate students at Washington and Lee, Youngman will develop other new undergraduate courses, including one in alternate dispute resolution. She hopes to show students how companies big and small can negotiate and arbitrate disputes without litigation.
Youngman spent the first 12 years of her career practicing commercial law and developed expertise in negotiating complex business disputes, often resolving cases favorably to her clients without going to trial.
Youngman moved to the Southern Environmental Law Center in 2008 and immediately was able to put a master’s degree in environmental studies to good use, representing non-profit entities advocating for environmentally responsible solutions to disputes with businesses and government agencies.
When two communities hoping to attract and support new development near Charlotte, N.C. applied to transfer 32 million gallons of water per day from the Catawba and Yadkin River Basins, she represented the Catawba Riverkeeper and worked with several cities and counties that wanted to protect their own water supplies. Youngman fought for a series of conservation and efficiency measures that curbed the impact of the new development, while still allowing it to proceed.
At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Youngman took up a fight to reduce the harmful impacts of off-road vehicles on the national park’s nesting sea turtles and shorebirds. Cape Hatteras was one of only a few national parks that allowed beach driving without restrictions required by federal law, and Youngman said sections of the beach “could look like a national parking lot, not a national park, on some summer days.” Youngman’s team pushed for tougher rules to govern driving near wildlife nesting areas and restrict nighttime driving during turtle nesting season.
“The resulting regulations were a win-win for both tourism and wildlife at Cape Hatteras. Sea turtle nesting has more than tripled since the heightened protections went into place, endangered and threatened bird species are doing much better, and tourism is setting new records,” said Youngman.
Youngman moved to Lexington three years ago when her husband Paul, a 1987 graduate of Washington and Lee, took a job as chair of W&L’s German and Russian Department. For several years, she commuted back and forth to North Carolina where her law practice was based. Youngman also taught two immersion courses, one in litigation and one in business transactions, for Washington and Lee’s School of Law. While she loved being in the classroom, she initially hesitated to interview for the open business law position in the Williams School.
“I really loved my work — it’s why I went to law school.” Youngman said. “But to be an active litigator, you can’t call that in. It was difficult to try to be part of two communities.”
While she will miss many aspects of the work she’s been doing for so long, Youngman is excited to take on her new role and to be more involved in the campus community.
“For 20 years, I’ve been fighting other people’s battles,” said Youngman. “Litigation is necessarily confrontational, and I’m definitely looking forward to the collaborative nature of academia, the chance to explore ideas that interest me, and the interaction with students.”
Photo: Julie Youngman, her client Desiree Sorenson-Groves, NC Gov. Pat McCrory, NCDOT General Counsel Shelly Blake, NC Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata, Southern Environmental Law Center Carolina director Derb Carter. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.