Melody Westfall L’09 has spent most of her life with the splash of ocean water not far away. She grew up in Bar Harbor, Maine, near Acadia National Park, and reveled in the outdoors. After high school, she served in the U.S. Navy for nearly six years, working in public affairs while stationed in Guam and Okinawa. Today, as the managing attorney of Westfall Law PLLC, she lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she oversees offices in St. Croix and St. Thomas, as well as the firm’s headquarters in Syracuse’s Armory Square. “Syracuse is the only time in my life that I didn’t live on the ocean,” says Westfall, a Syracuse University College of Law graduate.
While island life is ingrained in her, it was in landlocked Syracuse that Westfall found the focus for her professional career, combining her interests in environmental issues and law. Before enrolling at the College of Law, she had worked as an executive search consultant for two years in Tokyo and earned a bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Maryland Global Campus in Japan, taking mostly night classes while stationed there.
As a law student at Syracuse, Westfall embraced the opportunity to experience a full-time, on-campus academic environment for the first time. She became a member of the Syracuse Law Review, interned with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and participated in the Community Development Law Clinic. “We met with the nonprofits we were forming, and that was a big reason why I was interested in forming a small but diverse corporate practice,” she says. “It was a fantastic experience.” She also discovered the benefits of the collaborative relationship between Syracuse University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).
Interdisciplinary Approach to Environmental Law
An innovative, interdisciplinary Earth sciences course in contaminant hydrogeology introduced Westfall to environmental law. Professor Don Siegel in the College of Arts and Sciences was teaching Earth sciences graduate students how to be expert trial witnesses, and he recruited law students to act as attorneys for a simulated trial. “Everybody got super into it,” Westfall says. “I learned that to be a good environmental attorney, I needed to know the science behind it and not just the law.”
The experience motivated Westfall to boost her law degree with a master’s in environmental science and hydrogeology from SUNY-ESF. With Siegel as her faculty advisor, she found herself in that course again—this time as a hydrogeology graduate student playing an expert witness. “I didn’t tell any of the law students that I was an attorney until the class was over. It was fun and a really great experience,” says Westfall, who also served as a SUNY-ESF instructor, teaching a course she developed on water law.
I’m helping in the students' development, while they’re learning to solve real problems for clients. It’s so satisfying to see their satisfaction when they’ve figured out what needs to be done.
In 2010, while studying and teaching at SUNY-ESF, she launched her law practice, starting with little more than a phone and a computer in her apartment. Since then, Westfall—who specializes in environmental, real estate and business law—has successfully grown the business and expanded its services. She established the firm in Armory Square, and it became the first of its kind to earn certification for the Empire State Development’s Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise Program. This certification led to permitting, compliance and environmental work as a subcontractor to construction companies, as well as consulting jobs. She has represented clients in wind-turbine projects and been involved in the remediation of former industrial sites as part of redevelopment projects. Her current work includes the ground-up development of a chain hotel near Cooperstown, New York. In such projects, her team can help with financing, land-use and environmental issues, zoning, and setting up the business structure, she says. “These kinds of projects are great for us. A lot of people in the firm are involved, and we’re all working together on different parts of the deal.”
The College of Law Connection
Through it all, Westfall has maintained a solid connection with the College of Law. She regularly welcomes students for externships, including most recently Genna Amick L’21, Frances Rivera L’21 and Shelby Petro L’22. She’s brought several fellow alumni into the fold as well: Rosh Alger L’02, based in St. Thomas, works with the firm’s U.S. Virgin Islands offices; and Ryan McCarthy ’07, G’11 and Ethan Peterson L’17, G’17 are associate attorneys in the Syracuse office. Peterson, she says, is a prime example of a summer extern who stayed through the academic year and devoted a good deal of time to working at the firm. She jokes that he always seemed to be at the office, so she hired him. “Working for a law firm is critical to being prepared to practice after you graduate,” she says. “I’m helping in the students' development, while they’re learning to solve real problems for clients. It’s so satisfying to see their satisfaction when they’ve figured out what needs to be done.”
Westfall attributes her success to building an open, team-oriented atmosphere at the firm and being responsive to clients. “It really helps me understand my clients and what their needs are. I can pull in a lot of different resources from people in my network, depending on what clients need,” she says. “I have a really good group of people who want to do well. Everyone who works for me genuinely cares and wants to provide a high quality of service and help clients.”
The Virtual Advantage
When Westfall decided to relocate to the Caribbean in 2018, she established a communications infrastructure that would allow her to work remotely with the Syracuse office. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced most businesses to veer into the virtual world, Westfall and her team were already there. “All those things that people are trying to catch up on and struggling to do now, we had done a few years ago in the interest of my move,” she says. “We’re really seamless.”
Westfall says the firm is still growing, and she’s enjoying what she calls “an amazing, amazing place.” On a winter day, it’s 84 degrees and sunny in Gallows Bay, St. Croix, and, not surprisingly, it’s spitting snow in Syracuse. But Melody Westfall isn’t concerned about the snow. She’s got work to do, and the ocean’s close by.
This story was first published on March 11, 2021 and last updated on .
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