Senior Attorney Sarah Stokes featured by the Alabama Lawyer’s Women in Law issue
Sarah Stokes, a senior attorney in the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Alabama office, was recently featured as a prominent attorney by the Alabama Lawyer’s Women in Law issue. The profile notes Stokes’ many years advocating for clean air and water throughout the state. Below hear more from Sarah about the path that brought her to SELC and what inspires her to continue her work to ensure a healthy environment for all in Alabama.
Stokes has been honored previously by the Cahaba River Society as the Cahaba Conservationist of the Year and the Alabama Rivers Alliance as a River Hero. In 2018, the University of Alabama School of Law recognized her as a Profile in Service recipient, and she was also selected for the 2021-2022 Alabama Leadership Initiative Class.
For the past 12 years, Stokes has advocated tirelessly for clean air and water in Alabama’s courts and legislature. Beyond serving as leader of the organization’s stormwater work, she also heads up the internship program in the Birmingham office.
Stokes received her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College, a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and a juris doctorate from the University of Alabama School of Law. In law school, she clerked for Rosen Harwood P.A. and was a research assistant to Dr. Norman Singer in Ethiopia. Before law school, she worked for former Alabama Chief Justice Lyn Stuart and served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay as an environmental educator.
When asked for advice that might help future female law students, Stokes said, “Successful collaborations are more productive than successful individuals. Use your woman power to build successful collaborations. Choose a supportive partner, practice resilience, and exercise.”
Read or listen to the full profile by Alabama Lawyer, featured by the Alabama State Bar, here.
In the past 12 years, what cases have been more challenging or rewarding?
I have enjoyed our work representing GASP (the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution) as we try to reduce harmful air emissions from Birmingham’s coke facilities. This work has tangible benefits for the neighbors next door, the people having to breathe toxic air every day. Beyond our settlement with ABC Coke, Bluestone Coke has ceased operations. If Bluestone were to start operations again, they would have to do it in compliance with the Clean Air Act, with surrounding communities’ safety and wellbeing in mind. It’s fulfilling to see that impact in families’ everyday lives.
Second, our work with Coosa Riverkeeper in addressing construction stormwater issues throughout the state has been rewarding. After we delivered a notice letter to a company about one particularly harmful construction site, it decided to utilize better environmental practices throughout all their sites. Even though it costs them more in the short-term, they would rather do it the right way which ends up saving money in the long-term. They even sent out a letter to homebuyers explaining the environmental practices that go into building their homes. It’s fulfilling to know that, collectively, we were able to help find a solution that protects our streams.
Finally, helping to block Cahaba Beach Road, comes to mind. Developing the road near Lake Purdy would put Birmingham’s drinking water at risk. We, along with Cahaba River Society and Cahaba Riverkeeper, talked to Birmingham’s City Council, who passed a resolution in opposition to the road, informing the Federal Highway Administration that Birmingham doesn’t want this road.
Which mentors helped guide you in your career?
My mother was a trailblazer in her career as a successful lawyer while at the same time raising three kids. Despite her unfailing support of my dreams—she would stay up late to help me prepare for debates as far back as high school—she also warned me of the challenges of being a lawyer. She still tells me, “There’s nothing wrong with hard work!” I’m thankful I have an incredible role model to guide me.
What special place gives you inspiration?
My family lives near Hoover’s Moss Rock Preserve, a 350-acre nature preserve which has become a special place I return to weekly for reflection and healing. Whether I’m recentering alone or spending time with my sons, the four-mile loop reminds me of Alabama’s natural beauty and what’s at stake if we don’t protect it.
When did you first discover your love for the environment?
I was fortunate to come from a family that loved being outside and probably owned the first Prius in my neighborhood. For spring break, we would go swimming in Little River Canyon and camping in the Cohutta Wilderness in Georgia, so my inspiration came from both of my parents. After I was an environmental educator in the Peace Corps, I received my master’s from the London School of Economics where I learned that institutions and the rule of law affect peoples’ happiness. I became a lawyer so that I could help build institutions and laws that would make the world a better place.
SELC works to protect the people and places of Alabama.