Timelines, Resources and Career Paths to Save and Serve the Planet
Environmental law in its current form is a fairly young practice. The last forty years have seen great developments in the field, many of which are the result of federal environmental statutes like The Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Superfund Act of 1980. With increased information about and public interest in our environment since the 2016 Presidential Election, environmental law presents a diverse set of challenges and rewards that more people want to learn about. Explore what an educational path to Environmental Law looks like, as well as what jobs in the field may be a good fit.
Steps to a Concentration in Environmental Law
Environmental law professionals need to complete several levels of education and certifications before being able to practice law. From the bachelor-degree level, there are still many years ahead for those who want to become full-fledged lawyers, however there may be opportunities for supporting roles in environmental law, such as paralegals or legal researchers. Read the pathway below to get an idea of the steps to becoming an environmental lawyer.
Step 1Apply for and enroll in an undergraduate (Bachelor of Science, Art or Laws) program.
A pre-law path isn’t necessary to get into law school. An undergrad degree in a field that is related to desired area of specialty can help students determine which type of law they’re interested in. For instance, someone who earns a public health degree might go on to specialize in environmental law.
Step 2Get experience as soon as possible.
It is important for aspiring lawyers to begin getting experience in the field quickly. Internships at law firms, shadowing lawyers, or volunteering at a related government agency are examples of ways to earn experience and boost a résumé.
Step 3Familiarize yourself with the required exams.
Many graduate programs and law schools require The Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This exam should be timed to coincide with the desired start date; for fall admission in a grad program, it’s recommended that a student take the exam about a year ahead of time. Learn more about the LSAT here.
Step 4Declare a concentration, apply for graduate schools.
Lawyers seeking the highest pay grades should plan on three years of school after earning a bachelor’s degree in order to complete a Masters of Environmental Law. Other qualifications include a Master of Law or a Doctor of Philosophy. Finding a mentor to give advice on areas of interest and degrees needed can be helpful.
Step 5Graduate in good standing, and keep working for experience (and networking).
Nothing replaces real-world experience, so the more that graduate students can get, the better. Relationships are key in many fields, including environmental law, so expanding one’s network will likely help out down the road.
Step 6Take the bar exam.
The bar exam differs in each state to ensure that lawyers are well-versed in the specific laws of each jurisdiction. Lawyers need to pass the bar in each state in which they’re planning to practice, or take the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). Find specific information about each state bar association here.
Where to Work: Environmental Law in Practice
Environmental law provides a diverse array of potential settings for those who practice. From government agency to courtroom, or corporate office to non-profit organization, there are many places from which to choose. Check out the tabs below for perspective on what an environmental law job in each industry may look like.
Environmental law plays an integral part in U.S. Government. From the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to state boards and legislative groups, those with a background in environmental law can work in many facets of Federal, State and Local government.
Where They Work:
Government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Judicial departments like the U.S. Department of Justice, State Environmental Courts, Environmental Appeals Boards.
Providing legal counsel on regulatory practices, helping form legislation and draft laws regarding the environment, represent agencies during legal hearings.
Good Fit For:
Those interested in developing legislation and policy, people with political experience or aspirations, those with a passion for public service and patriotism, students part of a Government Honors program (Presidential Management Fellows or the like).
Lawyers in private practice focus on litigation, representing claimants or defendants in cases with environmental aspects. This might include cases involving allegations against companies who haven’t met environmental regulations. Lawyers might also act as an advocate for the protection of natural resources and the environment.
Where They Work:
Private practices can be anywhere. From a small building on a slow street to the highest skyscraper in the city, private law firms are abundant in many different areas. Environmental law-specific practices may be more prevalent in areas where natural resources and the environment are dominant issues, or where many government agencies are located.
Start-to-finish litigation, identifying potential cases, meeting with clients, researching and developing strategy for representation and defending or prosecuting the case in court.
Good Fit For:
Creative, energetic, risk-taking lawyers. Infrastructure for environmental law is still developing, so there is room for much interpretation and groundwork to still be done. There are opportunities to stand up for those who are likely underrepresented here.
Corporate | In-House
A corporate attorney works for a specific company, usually in the private sector. These professionals advise management regarding environmental regulations and laws, and may try cases in court if necessary. They may work by themselves or with a larger legal team. Job titles for these positions include Chief Legal Officer, In-House Counsel and high-level Legal Specialists.
Where They Work:
In an office for a single company. These companies could be any size, but they all have dealings with labor or environmental unions, waste disposal, land procurement or government regulations. Companies like ExxonMobil, Fox Sports and Liberty Mutual all have in-house legal departments that may need environmental lawyers on their team.
Provide legal advice and draft contracts, advise management on changes in the law, and represent their company in litigation. Advocate for the company and help it maintain strong business practices that are aligned with the law.
Good Fit For:
Lawyers willing to travel and represent a distinct entity, who have great writing and speaking skills as they may often have to speak on behalf of their company. A strong ethical base and sense of accountability is important. These professionals may deal with only a small part of the law; lawyers seeking specialization may be a good fit here.
Civil rights, environmental law and education reform are just a few of the arenas in which a public interest lawyer may work. Specific to environmental law, these attorneys may work to uphold high standards of environmental regulations, but not all environmental lawyers are relegated to working with statutes. Corporate law, property law, constitutional law, food and drug law and international law all cross into the larger realm of environmental public interest law.
Where They Work:
Non-profits, public defense, all levels of government and charitable organizations might all employ public service lawyers. International public interest law is one of the fastest growing areas of the field, with places like World Bank, the United Nations or any of the thousands of non-government or multi-government organizations popping up around the world.
To serve the public interest, and to look out for the interest of people who may be underserved or marginalized. Whereas an in-house attorney serves the needs of their company, a public interest attorney serves the needs of the public. They may practice for a reduced rate for their clients, or work on legal reform and lobby for new regulations.
Good Fit For:
Professionals with a strong sense of purpose to serve the underserved. Lawyers in this field should be flexible, good communicators and have extensive knowledge about and passion for their specific niche within environmental law.
Every organization that is known as a charity falls under the non-profit umbrella. There are approximately 1.5 million of these organizations in the United States, and they all need someone who can help them navigate the law within their specific sectors. According to GuideStar, a non-profit directory, there are nearly 65,000 non-profits under the Environment and Animals category.
Where They Work:
Environmental lawyers in the non-profit sector work at charity offices, and may work in the field with their organizations. Organizations like 350.org, The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund are all non-profits that employ lawyers.
Vary tremendously in terms of environmental law. One might advise on handling disaster relief, property law and restoration or chemical clean up and disposal. Others might work on land procurement contracts or agreements for land or property usage.
Good Fit For:
Principled individuals with interest in helping charitable organizations adhere to legal guidelines. Clear thinkers, great communicators and fast-acting individuals are especially well-suited for this line of work.
Quiz: Is Environmental Law Right for Me?
There are many options and opportunities related to conservation, sustainability, climate change and green law to choose from, so how can students find the right fit? The job descriptions above gave some ideas, but the quiz below can help potential environmental law practitioners narrow their search a bit more.
I am interested in helping with legal issues that…
Help manage environmental land use laws, assuring local infrastructure and development projects hold up to environmental standards. Work on creating more stringent regulations for fossil fuel production to reduce negative environmental impacts. Improve the quality of life for people in developing countries by establishing environmental sustainability regulations. Focus on environmental impacts, safety and sustainability for low-income communities and neighborhoods in the United States.
Helpful Courses and Academic Experience for Students
Students have options to take many different courses throughout their bachelor and graduate degrees. Those interested in environmental law specifically will take many administrative law-laden courses during graduate school, since much of the regulations are passed by federal and state agencies. Undergraduate programs have much looser guidelines because a law-specific bachelor program is not necessary in order to apply to law school.
Don’t want to spend the time on the educational path to a law degree? No problem, there plenty of other degree programs in related fields for someone with similar interests. A few ideas are listed below.
This is a branch of public health that concentrates on the relationship between people and their environment. The field also promotes human health and healthy communities. Similar to environmental law, there is a focus on minimizing negative environmental exposures to the public as well as a promotion of policies and programs that provide healthy environments.
Looking for additional information on green careers? Check out our page here for more information.green careers
Environmental Law Professional Groups and Organizations for Students
Prospective environmental law students should begin to build a network as soon as possible. Networks provide professional support, resources for potential jobs and systems for continuing education and staying up-to-date with the field. Students can also find benefits specifically for them, including discounts on educational materials, seminars and memberships.
American Bar Association Law Student Association
The American Bar is the premier membership platform for attorneys nationally. Benefits for Students:
Membership is free, and students get access to extra training, education and career guidance.
Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education
Works to create a better future for everyone by promoting sustainability throughout higher education. Benefit for Students:
Students get discounted membership and the AASHE hosts a conference every year that has more than 5,000 attendees.
Center for International Environmental Law
CIEL seeks a world where the law reflects the interconnection between humans and the environment, respecting the planet by encouraging all of earth’s inhabitants to positively coexist. Benefit for Students:
Offers internships and fellowships to students and publishes numerous pieces on issues facing the field.
National Association of Environmental Professionals
A member-based organization for all people in environmental careers. Benefit to Students:
A discounted rate (nearly 60 percent off the general membership) is available to students who can provide a transcript proving full-time enrollment.
Practicing Law Institute
A member-based site for all law sectors with continuing education opportunities. Benefit for Students:
PLI’s scholarship policy applies to law students, who can join for a discounted rate.
For example, the Arizona State University School of Sustainability has a LinkedIn group for their students. Check local campuses for more info.
Environmental Law Research and Resources
Information on the emerging field of environmental law is readily available online. Prospective students can find anything they need regarding potential degree programs, exam preparation, professional networking or career opportunities. Below are some additional resources that could be helpful for those preparing for this career path.
- 350.org An environmental non-profit named for the maximum level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This organization is committed to fighting climate change.
- Cornucopia Institute Supports sustainable agriculture and helps educate family farmers on acceptable practices.
- Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide ELAW offers volunteer opportunities, internships, and hosting opportunities.
- Environmental Protection Agency The United States government agency to protect the environment.
Advice from an Environmental Law Expert
James L. Ferraro is a practicing environmental litigation attorney. His firms in Miami and Cleveland represent nearly 50,000 asbestos claimants, and he has made a career in wrongful death, medical malpractice and environmental law. In 1997 he was one of ten national finalists for Trial Lawyer of the Year for his case Castillo vs. E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company and Pine Island Farms. The trial is documented in his book, Blindsided. In 2015, Ferraro was named Plaintiff’s Attorney of the Year after trying an asbestos case that resulted in a $17.17 million verdict. In addition to practicing law, he acts as a member of many groups and organizations, including the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, the Board of Directors of the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, Inc., and the Advisory Board of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Southern Florida.
What makes environmental law a rewarding area to work in?
Environmental Law is one of the areas that has little infrastructure in place to protect the public, so the lawyers play such a large role. While the EPA has great intentions, it has never been funded properly, so the responsibility falls into the hands of the attorney to truly make a difference. Even more so today, because funding has been cut even more, so there’s very little in place to keep companies honest, besides lawyers who are willing to take a chance.
A perfect example of this was in 1996, when I took on the chemical giant, DuPont, in a decade-long battle to help bring justice to the family of a young boy born with no eyes after his mother was doused outside of a local u-pick farm by a chemical fungicide believed to have caused his birth defect and the birth defects of many other children. The case was turned away by major law firms, because it was going to be so difficult to prove, but I decided to take on the case to bring justice to the family and prevent this from happening to anyone else—and ultimately, I won. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life, and is described in detail in my new book Blindsided.
What qualities do environmental lawyers need to be successful?
They need to be risk takers and creative lawyers, and be able to think out of the box and think like a detective. In order to be successful in environmental law, you have to be a creator, because there isn’t a lot of infrastructure currently in place to follow. There’s also a big crossover between science and law, so you need to be interested in science and be able to apply it to the law like an investigator.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in environmental law?
Its not going to be easy, but it will be very rewarding. You need to be diligent, focused, organized and make a clear plan. You’re going to be up against giant chemical companies and the best of the best, so you need to make a smart plan and have a good fight. Be patient, and be willing to ride out the storm. Environmental law is not for everybody, but is perfect for the creative and energetic lawyer who wants to make a difference. You also have to have thick skin, because the big companies will try and out lawyer you, but you need to stick it out.