What Does an Environmental Lawyer Do?

Environmental lawyers uphold regulations and advocate for new policies related to clean water, clean air, global warming, land use and other environmental themes. Find out about environmental law career opportunities, professional requirements and employment information for lawyers by reading on. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Environmental Law Career Overview

Environmental lawyers may work for environmental advocacy organizations, non-profit organizations or the government. They can also go into private practice, doing consulting work or representing a range of clients in court. Environmental lawyers often work to ensure that businesses are following environmental regulations, though their major job duties often depend on where they work. Below, you can read about the typical characteristics of environmental law careers in three industries.

Important Facts About Environmental Lawyers

On-the-Job Training Internships and field-specific experience required
Key Skills Excellent spoken and written communication, thorough researching, analytical and critical thinking, problem solving, social sensitivity, time management, negotiation
Work Environment Private or corporate legal offices
Similar Occupations Judges, paralegals, legal assistants, arbitrators, mediators, conciliators, post-secondary teachers

Private Companies

A diverse mix of private companies and industries utilize our natural resources and need the services of an environmental lawyer. Energy companies like coal, oil and natural gas and utility companies such as water, electricity and telecommunications hire environmental lawyers to guide them through legal issues involving regulatory compliance and litigation challenges.

Agricultural industries such as farming and fisheries also need environmental lawyers to advocate for their issues. Fishing conglomerates and even smaller companies are constantly dealing with regulations at the federal and state levels, often imposing catch limits and other restrictions. Large farming cooperatives and small farmers need the services of lawyers for regulations on soil quality, crop yields and livestock issues.

Another industry that relies on environmental lawyers is the automotive industry. An industry once on the verge of collapse is reinventing itself by developing more hybrid and sustainable energy products. Lawyers are employed to give everyone in the industry a better understanding of the legal issues with regard to emissions and other environmental factors.

Government Agencies

Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice employ environmental lawyers to advocate for a number of issues, such as regulations guided by the Clean Air Act with regard to manufacturing, energy companies, farming, construction and healthcare. You are responsible for getting these companies to adhere to regulations by helping them understand specific environmental laws. You also are responsible for taking violators to court on behalf of the government.

Every state and most American territories have their own environmental agencies, which monitor all energy, mining, utilities, waste, water and radiation issues. Lawyers are needed by these agencies to help enforce regulation by interfacing with EPA officials and industry professionals.

Non-Profit Organizations

Organizations such as the Environmental Law Institute, Greenpeace and the Alliance for Climate Protection work with government agencies and act as a watchdog for environmental protection. As a lawyer with one of these organizations, you research problems or incidents and litigate for the concerns of the organization.

Environmental Lawyer Education Options and Licensure

All lawyers, including environmental lawyers, need to earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Applicants to law school need to hold a bachelor's degree and send in Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. Some law schools offer certificate programs in general environmental law, climate change law, water resources law or energy that are completed during the JD curriculum. Also available are dual degree programs that pair the Juris Doctor with a master's degree in environmental law and policy, environmental management or environmental studies. At least one JD degree program in the country is entirely focused on environmental law. Graduates from law schools that didn't offer environmental law as a certificate or dual degree option can apply to Master of Laws (LLM) degree programs in environmental law. Sometimes, schools may offer dual JD/LLM programs focused on environmental law.

Generally, first-year law students take fundamental classes like civil law, constitutional law and torts, and over the next two years they can select specialty coursework in environmental law. Topics covered can include natural resources law, animal law, ocean and coastal law, air pollution law, mining law, oil law, international environmental law, land use law, environmental litigation, hazardous waste and wildlife crimes. Such programs also usually have specialized environmental law clinics and externship opportunities.

All states require lawyers to become licensed. Most states require lawyers to graduate from a Juris Doctor program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) and to pass one or more bar examinations.

Employment Information

Though statistics regarding the environmental law job market aren't readily available, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that lawyers in general would have an average employment growth of 6% between 2014 and 2024. Competition for available jobs is likely to be intense. Salary information for environmental lawyers is not available either. The BLS reported that the median annual income among all lawyers was $114,970 in 2014.

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