Meet our team – Melissa Groenink

26 October 2017

We know that the legal profession has a bit of a dull reputation so in this short series we will be helping you get to know our team - so that you can learn more about what makes an environmental professional tick (it isn’t all chaining ourselves to trees - although some of us do enjoy a spot of activism!).

This week we’ve been chatting to Melissa Groenink. A Senior Associate at Cullinan & Associates, Mel has been with us for 3 years, having previously attained a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Laws from Rhodes Univeristy and worked at another firm in Durban.

Her joint passions for environmental science and law made Cullinan & Associates a natural home for Mel, who is most passionate about animal rights issues, biodiversity and marine matters. On top of her dedication for protecting the natural environment through her work, Mel is passionate about enjoying it – through her love of sport. She has completed a half ironman, regularly runs and loves getting out and about on her mountain bike.

Get to know more about Mel in our Q&A below:

What skill would you like to master?

I would love to master mountain biking skills… I’m working on it, though I’d be VERY hesitant to ever claim to have mastered it! Oh, and to be able to keep plants alive would be nice.

What lesser-known talent/skill do you have?

It’s well known in the firm, but I do like to bake.  I usually try something different each time, so every cake ends up being an experiment… some work, some don’t (though when this happens, I have very gracious friends and family!).

Tell us about your Iron Man race!

It was a half Ironman Durban in June 2016, which in the end was reduced to only the cycle and run after poor sea conditions resulted in the swim being cancelled.  It was a great experience training with a great bunch of people for many months, with countless early mornings and hours in the saddle, and a good number of handstands.  We really got to know each other well!  On race day, it was a very hot day, despite it being winter, and I think by then I had lost my Durban acclimatisation.   Nevertheless it was a fun day and I loved having my friends and family along the way to support and to keep me going.  I did the training, so I’ll still claim it as an Ironman 70.3 smile

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I can’t identify one specific piece of advice, but I take encouragement from the way in which my one very resilient orchid just seems to never give up…

Why did you decide to go in to environmental law?

It was a bit of a eureka moment actually.  Initially I wanted to study dietetics, but also really wanted to study at Rhodes, which didn’t offer dietetics.  I attended a session with a Rhodes career counsellor before I set off, and we all realised that this wasn’t really a viable career route!  I was also interested in environmental science and law, so when I realised I could study both environmental science and law at Rhodes and combine it into a career, it all fell into place, and I haven’t looked back.

What case has affected you most since you began practicing?

There have been a number of really important cases C&A has worked on since I have been here, and I think all have impacted on my own thinking and the way in which I practice law.  The firm’s pro bono work has been particularly inspiring.

If you could rewrite one aspect of the South African legal system, what would it be and why?

We need to take a good, long look at the way in which the EIA process works (or sometimes, doesn’t work) in South Africa. More immediately though, I think the timeframes for submitting appeals against decisions under the National Appeal Regulations are unreasonable in a couple of respects.  First of all, the appeal timeframe is far too short, even shorter than the minimum mandatory public participation period in the EIA process.  This means that an interested and affected party (an I&AP) is required to prepare a full appeal argument (which may include the appointment of a lawyer or other expert), and provide copies to all I&APs, within the 20 days.  Secondly, that an I&AP who appeals a decision is required to provide a copy of the appeal to all I&APs is unreasonably onerous, particularly where some I&APs are not listed or do not have email addresses.

What area of environmental law is closest to your heart, and why?

Although we don’t deal with many animal rights matters, this is certainly closest to my heart.  Otherwise, I do love the “green issues” like biodiversity and marine matters, primarily because I love being out in nature and want everybody to be able to experience the wonder of it all.  When I see nature being destroyed (including those runners throwing down plastic water sachets), it really hurts my soul.

What makes you hopeful for the future?

My colleagues and others in the field that I meet along the way that have the same passion as I do for the environment.  We also have a number of clients who care deeply about the environment and communities affected by environmental atrocities.   

What are the top 3 things you would like to accomplish in your future?

  • Involvement in a precedent setting environmental / renewable energy matter in the Constitutional Court
  • To complete a full Ironman
  • To be able to handstand for a minute wink

How do you feel about being a member of the ‘Melissa’ environmental lawyer brigade?

This is a great question!  There are indeed an inordinately large number of Melissas in environmental law – at least five that I know of in a fairly small field!  I’ve met most and think we’re all pretty cool, so I don’t mind sharing the name.  I await the day we’re all in the same room together…

How do lawyers in Cape Town compare to those in Durban?

This is a tricky one.  Two very different firms to compare.  More surfers in Durban, more trail running lawyers in Cape Town wink  Jokes aside, I can only say good things about my Cape Town colleagues.

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