Maureen Murphy Katz ’70

Maureen Murphy Katz ’70 

Written by Phuong Le ’16

Maureen Murphy Katz '70

Maureen Murphy Katz ’70

With nearly 30 years of experience in environmental law, Maureen Murphy Katz ’70 has been a vital presence in the Environmental Enforcement Section of the United States Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division. Her office has brought about countless improvements to the environment as well as in the living conditions of American citizens.

Growing up in the Chicago area, Katz had aspired to go to Manhattanville College. A graduate of the Catholic Villa Duchesne School, her family also had a history of Sacred Heart education. At the College, Katz majored in economics and benefitted from the wide-range of academic offerings, including taking several Russian Studies courses. A well-rounded student-athlete, she was not only on the basketball team but also involved with the student newspaper and active in community service as a tutor at Educage in White Plains. Katz finished her degree one semester early, in December 1969, and moved to Boston for her first job. The work, however, was unsatisfying, prompting Katz to apply to graduate school. Her initial plan was to get an MBA, but a meeting with her college roommate’s uncle, who practiced law in Boston, changed her mind. He warned Katz of the many difficulties for a woman in the 1960s to find a job in the business field and instead advised her to apply to law school.

“I’ll never forget what he told me,” Katz recalled. “He said that ‘Even if you get a law degree, you probably won’t be able to find a job but it will be easier for you to hang out your own shingle and find clients as a lawyer than it would be with an MBA.’”

Katz shared that her undergraduate economics background helped ease her transition to law school, especially in studying corporate and securities law. She graduated from Northeastern University Law School in 1973 and got her first job as a lawyer in Philadelphia, at then the second largest law firm in the United States. She was the third woman among 120 lawyers to work at the firm. Moreover, Katz was hired for their corporate practice, which was also an unusual position for a woman at a prominent law firm. She described the experience as “unhappy.”

“I found it very difficult to be a woman in a big firm like that,” she shared, “and in an area of law where I never saw another woman.”

After working at the firm for 17 months, Katz began to question whether her decision to become a lawyer was a “terrible mistake” and decided to leave the firm as well as the legal profession. For the next few years, she did a variety of work in politics, ranging from fundraising to serving as the Finance Director for the Democratic nominee’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. Although her candidate lost the election, the experience led Katz to move to Washington, D.C. where she joined a nuclear non-proliferation public interest firm.

Her desire to resume the practice of law motivated her to take a new path in her career. Katz went on to work as a trial attorney for the Department of Energy (DOE) where she litigated cases enforcing an energy regulatory scheme. After seven years with the DOE, in 1987, Katz moved to her current office, the Environmental Enforcement Section of the Department of Justice, where she continued as a trial attorney. Katz has found her work in the public sector to be tremendously rewarding and ultimately a great career fit for both her training in economics and the law.

“The mission of my office is to enforce the federal environmental laws, which were enacted to protect human health and the environment, something I personally feel strongly about.”

In 2000, she became the Assistant Chief for Management of the Section and has been in this position since. Her Section is one of the largest offices in the Department of Justice, and she finds that managing 155 lawyers and keeping the office running smoothly is both challenging and rewarding. Many of the Section’s cases are high-profile. For example, her office is currently litigating the United States’ claims for civil penalties and natural resource damages in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosions and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The suit involves thousands of parties which Katz considers to be an “enormous management challenge.” Katz finds the breadth of her office’s accomplishments to be incredibly fulfilling. She reflected on her earlier work as a trial attorney in the office and litigating a case that is achieving the cleanup of the Fox River in Wisconsin. Once the river has been dredged of its most contaminated sediments, the citizens of Wisconsin will be able to more fully enjoy a spectacular natural resource, including subsistence fishing by the Hmong immigrant community in the Fox River Valley.

Because her career as a Justice Department attorney has been so rewarding, Katz chose to stay in the legal profession and now encourages young women to explore their options in legal work.

“Things are very different today than when I started out,” Katz said. “There are many, many more women in law, and I think that any young woman who aspires to a career in law should pursue it. There is definitely a more welcoming attitude by employers. Right now women account for approximately 50% of law school admissions, so there is nothing to hold them back at this point.”

Katz credited her education at Manhattanville College with helping her find the passion in her current career.

“There was an implicit understanding at Manhattanville that part of the school’s culture was to help other people. Whether it was a teacher helping a student or engaging in volunteer work, it was understood as a part of the College’s ethos,” she shared. “At my first job that was one of the things I found missing, and it is one of the things that I find so satisfying about my current job. The mission of my office is essentially to help people, help the environment and help ensure public health.”

Maureen Murphy Katz ’70

Maureen Murphy Katz ’70

Katz also shared that, as a government lawyer, one of her proudest moments was when she appeared in court for the first time representing her country.

“You stand up, you address the judge and you say, ‘Your Honor, my name is’ then you state your name, ‘appearing on behalf of the United States,’” she recalled. “And at that moment you feel the gravitas, the seriousness of representing United States citizens. It is a huge honor.”

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