A UC Pathway to the Nation’s Capital

A Q&A about the UCDC Law Program with Elana Nager and Emmett Barnes (J.D. candidates, '24) who worked in Washington D.C. in Fall 2023.

December 14, 2023

From a bench in the Shapiro Courtyard, the drama on Capitol Hill can feel worlds away. But for any student curious about practicing law in Washington D.C., there’s actually a very convenient conduit. The UCDC Law Program places students from UCLA, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Hastings, and Berkeley in a full-semester externship with leading organizations in their area of study.

About 450 UC students—112 from UCLA Law—have participated in the program over 14 years, for an introduction to what it’s like to live and work in the Beltway, whether in government, NGOs, or other industries. That includes two UCLA Law students specializing in environmental law who went to D.C. for Fall 2023.

Elana Nager worked at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, which investigates serious violations of environmental laws and provides counsel on legal and policy matters. Emmett Barnes worked with the Center for International Environmental Law, or CIEL, a non-profit that does policy research as well as provides legal counsel and advocacy at the nexus of climate change and human rights. A third UCLA student Evan Zepeda who is part of the Public Interest Law and Policy Program as well as the Critical Race Studies Program went this Fall and worked at the Senate Judiciary Committee in Sen. Dick Durbin’s office. They got a front-row seat for political action—and dysfunction—during their time in Washington. 

The Emmett Institute caught up with Elana Nager and Emmett Barnes over email as the semester was winding down. The following interview has been lightly edited.

Q: How did you decide to do a Fall semester in Washington D.C. and has the experience been what you expected?

Nager: The UCDC program and the opportunity to work in the federal government always stood out to me as the best way to advance my academic and professional career path in environmental policy. I always wanted to be at the center of U.S. lawyering and policy work, and through UCDC’s course curriculum and my externship at the EPA, I was afforded a truly unique opportunity. 

Barnes: The UCDC externship program has enabled me to attend a school with a fantastic environmental law program like UCLA and still get experience in D.C. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here, having the chance to explore the area and connect with many local environmental attorneys in person, and I know my transition back here as an attorney will be much smoother for it.

Q: It’s been a historic couple of months in Washington with a government shutdown narrowly averted, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy voted out, and a new House Speaker finally selected. What has it been like to be in the nation’s capital for the action? 

Barnes: Federal politics definitely infuses many aspects of life in the District, both personal and professional. The odds are high that you know a Hill staffer or even see a member of Congress out at a restaurant or at the grocery store, so there is a surreal sense that you’re watching live political theater. But I have friends on the government payroll who can’t pay rent if the government shuts down, so it’s important to remember that there are many people who are seriously affected by these kinds of political decisions.

Nager: I got to hear directly from congress members and other officials in D.C. on their view of the looming shutdown and the aftermath of the House Speaker shake-up. At the EPA, we were told if the government was to shut down, we had to immediately close our computers until further notice. There was definitely internal frustration about how much of an obstruction partisan politics can be on the function of critical government institutions. I have also had a range of D.C. experiences from seeing House members cast a vote, to listening in during a Senate hearing, to visiting with California Congressman Adam Schiff and meeting California Senator Alex Padilla. What was truly unexpected was that I also happened to see Senator Diane Feinstein a couple days before her passing, which led me to reflect on the impact and respect I have garnered since witnessing major historical events here in D.C. 

Barnes: It has been a treat to spend this time in the nation’s capital, where it feels like every week you see something bizarre happen. I’ve attended a speech by President Biden and chatted with a couple of Congressmembers, but I suppose my crowning achievement from my time in D.C. has to be seeing local celeb Tony P out in the wild, not just once but three times (any young D.C. professionals reading this surely know who I’m talking about).

Q: What’s next for you as you head toward graduation?

Nager: I am in the process of applying for jobs in the environmental policy field. UCDC solidified my desire to work for the federal government here in Washington D.C! 

Barnes: My time away from campus has reinvigorated me to return to Westwood and make the most of my last semester at UCLA. There’s nothing quite like the atmosphere at UCLA Law, so I’m excited to take some interesting classes, spend time with friends, and learn from the incredible faculty and staff at the law school. Then on to take the Bar Exam and return to D.C. as soon as possible!

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