Women in the Law

A profile on Sarah Francisco, of Charlottesville. Part of a special editorial series celebrating the achievements of Virginia’s women legal professionals.

Sarah Francisco

Director, Southern Environmental Law Center

While in law school at the University of Richmond, a class in environmental law helped focus Francisco, an outdoors-lover who grew up on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley; she saw the power and the possibilities of the law to help protect and conserve natural areas. When she learned about the Southern Environmental Law Center, which “uses the power of the law to champion the environment of the Southeast,” Francisco says she knew it was exactly what she wanted to do.

She started with SELC in 2002 and now is the director of the nonprofit’s Virginia office, based in Charlottesville, where she oversees work in the state in SELC’s five main program areas: clean air and energy, clean water, coastal protection, land and community, and national forests and parks. The work is challenging, demanding patience and persistence. “At SELC, we are not afraid to tackle big problems, and many environmental problems have been developing for a long time,” she says. “These are not necessarily easy problems to solve.”

Yet the work is also, for Francisco, profoundly rewarding. “Virginia is a beautiful state full of really distinctive special places and special communities,” she says, “and being able to work to keep it as wonderful tomorrow as it is today, or to improve what needs to be improved—to have that sense of purpose and focus is fantastic.” 

She explains that one of her great frustrations, however, is the way environmental protection has come to be regarded as a partisan political issue. At SELC, she says, “We have always thought it was really important to be able to work across all kinds of political lines, to be able to build bridges and work together for the future of Virginia and of the South.”

“Everyone,” she says, “who cares about the future of this state should care about the environment.”

Editors’ note: Women were first admitted to the state bar in 1920, thus making it possible for them to practice law in the Commonwealth. Nearly a century later, women in the law throughout Virginia have risen into positions of leadership and responsibility in public and private practice, nonprofits, education, the judicial system and legal organizations. The editors of Virginia Living sought out some of these outstanding women for their perspectives on their work and the law, and insights from their careers. For more information, including a complete list of Virginia’s top-rated women lawyers, look for our August 2017 issue.

Read the rest of the profiles in our Women in the Law special series:

Jessica Childress, Northern Virginia

Patricia Roberts, Williamsburg

Lori Thompson, Roanoke

Pia Trigiani, Alexandria
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