Environmental lawyers represent the Earth’s interests against corporations and government entities. They may also work as in-house counsel for businesses to offer preventative practice recommendations.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for lawyers to grow 4% between 2019-2029. The BLS reports that these professionals earn a median annual pay of $126,930.
This guide includes information on degree paths, potential work environments, and professional organizations for aspiring environmental lawyers.
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Steps to a Concentration in Environmental Law
Pursuing an environmental law career requires thoughtful planning. This section outlines the steps required to work as an environmental lawyer.
Step 1: Enroll in an Undergraduate Program
Students typically need at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify for law school. However, colleges rarely offer undergraduate environmental law degrees. Instead, students should consider a bachelor’s degree in political science or economics with a minor in a science-related field.
Step 2: Get Experience
Students can gain environmental law experience through internships and volunteer work. These opportunities help students learn practical skills. They also provide networking opportunities that can lead to future employment.
Step 3: Get Familiar with Required Exams
Students must complete the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to apply to law school. Aspiring lawyers should set aside ample time to study for this exam. Some colleges offer LSAT prep courses to help students prepare for it.
Step 4: Declare a Concentration and Enroll in Graduate School
Undergraduate juniors and seniors should apply for graduate programs after completing the LSAT. Many law schools offer a general law major with a concentration in environmental studies. Students should consider applying to multiple schools to increase their acceptance chances.
Step 5: Take the Bar Exam
Aspiring lawyers must pass the bar exam to practice law. Exam requirements vary by state. Some states accept the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), while others accept the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). The UBE features fewer questions than the MBE, but more states accept the MBE.
Where to Work: Environmental Law in Practice
Environmental lawyers work in various settings and contexts. This section outlines potential work settings for environmental lawyers.
According to the BLS, 18% of all lawyers work for the federal, state, or local government. Environmental lawyers working for the government may help defend public land. When corporations or individuals cause mass pollution or other environmental harm, environmental lawyers represent the prosecution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) often hires these individuals.
Many private practices specialize in environmental law or hire several lawyers to specialize in it. Environmental lawyers can also start their own private practice. According to the BLS, 17% of lawyers are self-employed. Private practice environmental lawyers uphold laws outlined by the EPA.
Corporate in-house environmental attorneys help businesses avoid environmental harm. They also work to prevent lawsuits on behalf of their clients. Lawyers who prefer to work with one client rather than many often thrive in this work environment.
Public interest lawyers often represent marginalized people against corporations or government agencies. They may represent a group of people in a class-action lawsuit. For example, if a mining company causes contamination to a local water supply, a public interest lawyer may represent victims in a lawsuit. These lawyers often do not charge clients directly. Instead, they take a portion of the funds from a successful lawsuit.
Nonprofit environmental lawyers work for nonprofits focused on environmental efforts. Common environmental law organizations include EarthJustice, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Center for International Public Law. Rather than charging clients for services, environmental lawyers typically rely on public donations.
Helpful Courses and Academic Experience for Students
Undergraduate schools rarely offer environmental law degrees. However, undergraduates can still choose majors and courses that prepare them for an environmental law career. For instance, political science majors study public policy relevant to a law career. Aspiring environmental lawyers also benefit from business and natural science courses.
Degrees Related to Environmental Law
This list highlights several undergraduate degrees that help prepare students for an environmental law career.
Environmental health bachelor’s programs examine how chemical exposures and actions like oil drilling impact the Earth. Students also examine how sea levels and temperatures change over time. Additionally, learners study how environmental health impacts human health.
Students majoring in this topic examine sustainable building practices using solar energy. Students learn how to create project proposals and set renewable energy usage goals. Graduates know how to maximize solar site opportunities.
Sustainable agriculture bachelor’s programs examine farming methods that minimize environmental impact. Students learn how to meet textile and food needs without inflicting irreversible damage. Courses cover topics like renewable resources and soil fertility. Graduates may work as in-house counsel for agriculture companies.
Environmental Law Professional Groups and Organizations for Students
Professional groups and organizations offer many benefits for aspiring and practicing environmental lawyers. Members can often access professional development opportunities, resources, and networking opportunities. This list highlights several law-related professional organizations.
Center for International Environmental Law
This group advocates for corporate accountability, forest protection, and toxic exposure prevention. Students can access job and internship postings on this site. They can also access research publications.
The environment’s health can change rapidly and significantly. Therefore, environmental lawyers must stay updated on information relevant to the environment and their profession. This list highlights several environmental law resources.
This organization focuses on eliminating fossil fuels and promoting renewable energy. The site provides information and resources on how to creatively combat climate crises.
Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide
This group provides resources intended to spark long-lasting environmental change. Attorneys, scientists, and advocates can join grassroots sustainability campaigns through the organization.
Environmental Protection Agency
Many environmental lawyers ensure that corporations follow EPA regulations. The website provides information about environmental acts like the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Environmental Trial Lawyers Association
This association offers resources for attorneys asserting environmental claims. Environmental lawyers can list their contact information on the Find a Lawyer page.
Law School Admission Council
This organization administers the LSAT. The website provides study tools and assistance with choosing a law school. It also offers information on various environmental law career paths.
Environmental Litigation Attorney
Advice from an Environmental Law Expert
James L. Ferraro
Q. What makes environmental law a rewarding area to work in?
Environmental law is an area with little infrastructure in place to protect the public, so lawyers play such a large role in it. While the EPA has great intentions, it has never been funded properly, so the responsibility falls into the hands of the attorney to make a difference.
For example, in 1996, I took on DuPont in a decade-long battle to help bring justice to the family of a young boy born with no eyes. His mother was doused outside of a local u-pick farm by a chemical fungicide believed to have caused his birth defect. The case was turned down 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 I won. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life, and it is described in detail in my new book Blindsided.
Q. What qualities do environmental lawyers need to be successful?
They need to be risk-takers and creative lawyers. They must also think outside of the box and like a detective. For a successful environmental law career, you have to be a creator because there isn’t a lot of infrastructure in place. 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.
Q. What advice would you give to students who are interested in environmental law?
It’s not going to be easy, but it will be very rewarding. You need to be diligent, focused, and organized. 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. Environmental law is not for everybody, but it is perfect for the creative and energetic lawyer who wants to make a difference.
James L. Ferraro
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 10 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’s a member of many 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.
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