Environmental Law

PSJD Career Guide

This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Environmental Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.

This content is courtesy of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at Harvard Law School. It was written by Catherine Pattanayak, Esq., Assistant Director, and updated by Samantha Sokol, 2013 Summer Fellow.

What is Environmental Law?

What is environmental law? There are many ways to categorize the different issues lawyers may tackle in the complex field of environmental law. In essence, it is a collection of various laws, regulations, treatises, that address and regulate the broad range of activities by humans that affect land, air, water, plants, and living organisms. Initially, environmental legal issues were addressed primarily through common law negligence, nuisance, and property lawsuits, and to a lesser degree through a limited number of federal, state, and local laws controlling land and water usage. Environmental law as practiced today, however, has much of its basis in federal environmental statutes enacted. This body of law aims to protect the environment from pollution and overuse, and gives individuals and groups the right to bring legal action.

The below organization is designed to give you a sense of the depth and breadth of the field, and is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative. Since many environmental offices practice in a variety of areas, the following content distinctions do not necessarily correspond to discrete practice settings.

Pollution Control

Pollution laws prevent the contamination of air, water, and soil by hazardous substances. There are generally statutes at the federal, state and local level. At government agencies, lawyers develop and enforce these pollution laws. In non-governmental settings, pollution control lawyers lobby legislatures, litigate citizen suits, and challenge regulations in administrative courts.

Currently, concerns about climate change drive the work of many pollution control lawyers. For instance, lawyers work to ban substances that damage the ozone layer. They advocate for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions not only to protect air quality, but also to mitigate the effects of global warming.

Natural Resources Law

Natural resource laws govern the extraction and use of water, minerals, oil, and timber; the protection of wildlife and their habitats; and the use of public lands like national forests and parks. These laws prevent the misuse, overuse, and damage of resources. At government agencies, natural resources attorneys write regulations and make sure that developers follow relevant statutes. Non-governmental lawyers lobby and litigate to lessen the environmental impacts of resource development. Sustainable development, a resource use strategy designed to meet existing needs while saving for the future, is a current goal in the field of natural resources law. In other words, attorneys are working to craft natural resource laws with future generations in mind. Another significant issue in the field is the impact of technological advances on resource production. Often, new extraction technologies have unknown environmental effects, making it difficult for lawyers to determine how best to litigate or update the law.

Land Use Law

Land use laws limit the permissible uses of land. They define rules for zoning, city planning, and residential patterns. In the public interest, lawyers ensure that these laws protect natural or scenic resources and maintain biodiversity. Attorneys practicing in this field may work for state and local governments enforcing local land use laws and defending permitting decisions; in nonprofit organizations representing environmental interests in all stages of land use planning; and in private firms challenging permitting decisions or advising nonprofit and government developers. Up-and-coming issues in land use law include planning innovative and sustainable cities. Environmental lawyers support and advocate for city plans that consume less energy and release fewer emissions.

Environmental Justice

Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are more likely to face environmental risks. Since the 1980s, environmental justice lawyers have worked to achieve a fairer distribution of environmental burdens and benefits for these disadvantaged groups. Combining civil rights, social justice, and environmental concerns, public interest lawyers pursue two strategies to achieve environmental justice. First, they represent disadvantaged groups in environmental and toxic tort claims. On behalf of these groups, they sue the government or a company engaged in harmful environmental practices. Second, through community organizing and media campaigns, lawyers seek to empower people affected by environmental hazards. Environmental justice attorneys argue that disadvantaged groups ought to participate in the policy-making process.

International Environmental Law

Most environmental problems—like pollution, resource scarcity, and threats to biodiversity—are not confined within national borders. Current issues of international concern include: ozone depletion, oil spills, over-fishing, and air pollution from nuclear tests or accidents. There are also extensive opportunities to deal with environmental concerns in emerging economies like China, Brazil, and India. International treaties, agreements, and negotiations work to solve these global environmental problems. These agreements are all achieved with the input of environmental lawyers who serve as representatives of governments, international bodies, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations. Not only do environmental lawyers draft international laws, they also enforce them. International environmental lawyers participate in arbitration tribunals and help resolve disputes between states. Attorneys also make sure that international environmental agreements are implemented as planned.

Climate Change

The combustion of fossil fuels has changed the Earth’s temperature, precipitation, and ecosystems. Since the early 2000s, the scientific consensus around climate change—the warming of the Earth’s climate system as a result of human activities—has inspired a new field of climate change law. Lawyers in this field must adapt existing environmental regulatory regimes to changing climate conditions. They amend laws, rewrite regulations, or interpret statutes in new ways. Climate change lawyers also work to address the cause of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions. Designing legal tools to incentivize emissions reduction, like cap-and-trade programs or carbon taxes, is a current priority. Many climate change lawyers, support the development, regulation, permitting, and financing of new technologies to reduce emissions.

Energy Law

Energy law governs the use of electricity, gas, and oil, along with renewable energies like nuclear, solar, wind, water, and geothermal power. State and federal regulations define nearly every aspect of utility use. Since public utility companies maintain monopolies over the utility industry, they are highly regulated. Government lawyers ensure that companies follow mandated price structures, permit rules, and emission standards. Unsurprisingly, recent trends in energy law center on climate change and its effects. Energy lawyers are laying the legal groundwork for cleaner sources of energy. They design regulatory regimes for new power sources or advocate for climate conscious energy policies. They also support the permitting and financing of solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Food Law

Federal, state, and local laws govern how food is grown, transported, and processed. The relatively new field of “food law” aims to remedy problems in our food systems, including lack of access to fresh food, risks from genetically engineered foods, and the effects of climate change on agriculture. With the goal of making food systems safer and healthier, government and nonprofit lawyers research food problems and inform policy-making. They might draft guidelines, laws, and regulations, or educate and empower communities about food issues. Alternatively, many food attorneys perform conventional litigation. In suing corporations or government agencies for practices that are harmful to human health or the environment, they appear in court, participate in discovery, and draft motions, briefs, and memos.

Water Law

Laws protect water sources from pollution, and defend marine habitats from degradation. Water lawyers confront threats to our rivers, lakes, oceans, groundwater, and wetlands. As a result of climate change and environmental accidents, issues in water law are abundant and constantly changing; oil spills, melting polar ice caps, and shipping emissions are only a few current problems. A key objective for many water lawyers, is to ensure access to safe, local, and reliable sources of drinking water. Combining environmental and public health concerns, some attorneys litigate, lobby, and campaign for clean water laws and regulations. Other water lawyers preserve ecosystems by protecting marine species from destructive fishing and climate change.

Where can I practice Environmental Law?

When representing environmental interests, you may practice in a variety of settings across the country. This section describes and provides general background information on three distinct practice settings.

Non-Profit Organizations

A substantial amount of environmental advocacy is conducted by nonprofit organizations. To achieve their goals, these organizations engage in a wide range of legal work, from impact litigation to legislative advocacy to public education and community organizing. The advantages of working for a nonprofit include superior training, a relaxed office culture, and enough flexibility in scheduling to achieve a work-life balance. Perhaps the greatest advantage is the reward of advancing the public good. Because nonprofits are leanly staffed and mission-driven, attorneys can choose their own cases. A small office also means that nonprofit attorneys apply many advocacy strategies to a diversity of issues.

A disadvantage of working for a nonprofit organization is limited resources. In environmental litigation and lobbying, this can be an obstacle to achieving a victory. Before entering nonprofit environmental work, one is recommended to consider if they have the perseverance to advocate with limited resources against powerful forces. Of course, nonprofit jobs also offer lower salaries than most for-profit or government work.

Environmental advocacy organizations can be broadly categorized as either litigation or policy oriented. Many organizations, of course, employ both strategies. While some organizations focus exclusively on environmental issues, others carry out work in other areas, as well.

Government Agencies

The government, whether at the federal, state, or local level, offer numerous opportunities for lawyers to engage in environmental practice. From drafting legislation and regulations to defending and enforcing environmental laws, the activities of government lawyers are many and varied. Environmental attorneys provide counsel to agencies, litigate cases on behalf of the government, and write legislation, regulations, and implementation standards. The work of government attorneys may be substantively varied or narrow; some government attorneys may tackle diverse issues, while others may litigate to enforce just one environmental statute. Additionally, it is not uncommon for attorneys in this setting to find themselves on both the affirmative and defensive side of environmental disputes. Indeed, it is the job of government attorneys to defend the government when it is sued for damaging the environment. One advantage to practicing in government is access to resources. Conversely, many government attorneys point to bureaucratic and political frustrations as major disadvantages of their job. Environmental work, in particular, faces partisan gridlock, as issues are hotly contested in the legislature.

Law Firms

There are a limited number of private law firms that handle affirmative environmental cases. Like nonprofits, these firms are mission-driven and pursue cases that advance their vision of environmental change. Unlike nonprofits, however, these firms are for-profit businesses. They typically finance their practices with contingency fees and attorney’s fees from successful lawsuits, or follow a traditional billable hours fee structure. Although some firms dedicate their practices solely to environmental law, most must handle other types of cases as well, in order to earn sufficient revenue.

Many private public interest law firms (PPILF) represent individual or class-action plaintiffs who are bringing suit against an institutional actor, like a corporation or the government. Firms may also represent public interest clients like local civic groups and government agencies in other civil cases. Not all environmental firms litigate; many perform land use and zoning work for government clients.

Working at a PPILF allows attorneys to reap many of the benefits of a firm career while maintaining a connection to a public interest mission. Advantages of firm work include high earning potential and the possibility of bonuses during profitable years. Firms also have better access to resources than nonprofits. The flipside, however, is that attorneys at firms must balance their public interest mission with fiscal goals; they often must take on non-environmental cases to keep the firm afloat or turn down clients with worthy but unprofitable environmental complaints.

What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Environmental Law?

Although a wide range of opportunities exist for environmental law practice in the public sector, the job search process demands aggressive research, planning, and networking. This section includes advice on finding a job and building the foundation for a successful career.

Planning your law school activities with an eye towards your career goals will help you develop the necessary background for an environmental law career. Public interest employers look for several key elements in an applicant’s background. First, employers consider a demonstrated commitment to public interest work to be critically important. Employers want to see that you are invested in advancing the public good -- not merely looking for an alternative to private sector work. Second, many employers look for a demonstrated interest in environmental law. Plan your law school curriculum to include environmental law and related courses such as administrative law, constitutional law, and federal courts. Note that some courses that may appear unrelated upon first glance may in fact provide useful substantive knowledge; for example, many environmental litigators recommend that students take Corporations in order to better understand the structure and legal constraints of their frequent opponents. Be sure to take on environmental research projects whenever possible—in class, with professors, or even with local environment groups.

Extracurricular activities can be an excellent way to show a strong interest in environmental law while meeting other students who share your interest. Perhaps most importantly, expose yourself to different types of environmental law practice in a variety of settings through summer internships, clinics, and volunteering. Of course, environmental public interest employers also look for all of the usual qualifications expected from applicants in any field of law – meaning strong analytical, writing, and research skills are essential. The more traditional indicators of success that you can amass, the more successful you will be as an applicant.

As with many public interest jobs, networking is key to finding positions in environmental law. To learn about opportunities, you must diligently pursue and maintain contacts in the field. Get yourself into the information loop. Find out who’s who in the field. It’s small world, so it’s important to network. Networking is vital to setting yourself apart from other applicants.

Seize every possible opportunity for networking during your law school career: develop and maintain contacts through your internships, clinics, and volunteer projects, and spend as much time as possible talking to people at environmental organizations.


The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:

Environmental Law

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