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Getting Involved in Environmental Law

Timelines, Resources and Career Paths for Students 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.

Meet the Experts

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 1 Apply 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 2 Get 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 3 Familiarize 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 4 Declare 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 5 Graduate 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 6 Take 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.

  • Responsibilities:

    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).

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.

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.

Related Degrees

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.

Would be a good fit for…

  • Professionals looking for extended educational paths and career development

  • Those concerned with public health and safety

  • People interested in disease prevention

Food and water resources are becoming a hot-button issue, and people in this field look to find ways to make food production sustainable and healthy for the environment. Professionals in this field don’t deal with environmental law directly, however they do address healthy environment concerns, maintainable practices and environmental justice.

Would be a good fit for:

  • Students with a background in farming or agriculture

  • Science- or research-minded professionals who have knowledge in biology, forestry, soil science or animal science

  • Those interested in instructing others in sustainable practices

  • People interested in conservation

Harnessing the power of the sun results in direct pay off. It’s safe and ecological compared to the non-renewable energy resources of the past. Even without practicing environmental law directly, experts in this industry can still help drive legal environmental compliance. People who are interested in renewable energy and a safe environment for all might find this a challenging and rewarding career.

Would be a good fit for:

  • People who like to see projects through from start to finish

  • Linear thinkers who can visualize the development of an idea from design through to installation

  • Problem solvers who are able to correct issues throughout the development of a project

  • Professionals who are interested in the implementation and granting of access to sustainable energy on a global level

One cannot study animals without considering the environment in which they live. This field is far off from the arena of law and policy, but still holds interest for green thinkers who are interested in sustainable and safe habitats for all. At the highest wage-earning levels, professionals in this field have master’s or doctoral degrees, so a willingness to stay in school is a must.

Would be a good fit for:

  • Science-minded animal lovers

  • Those interested in evolution, anthropology and other social sciences

  • People who want to connect the dots between animals’ surroundings and their health

  • Conservationists

Creative people will find a lot of reward in architecture. The field allows its practitioners to design and inspire buildings of all kinds; homes, public buildings, and private offices can all be designed by a green architect. Environmental concerns are at the forefront of the design and execution of these buildings, and incorporate environmentally-friendly, recycled materials, renewable energy and power, and minimal damage to surrounding environment or animal habitats.

Would be a good fit for:

  • Creative visionaries who also have an attention to detail

  • People interested in staying up-to-date on the latest trends, both creatively and ecologically

  • Team players who can work with clients and contractors to ensure deadlines are met

Looking for additional information on green careers? Check out our page here for more information.

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.

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.