Environmental Lawyer

Environmental law is the body of laws that governs how people interact with Earth’s biological and geological systems. This widespread field covers an array of issues from air pollution and housing development, to hazardous waste cleanup. Environmental lawyers work to ensure that organizations and corporations comply with the rules and regulations set forth by the government. They also fight against practices that may negatively impact the environment. Keep reading to learn more about the environmental lawyer.

What Does an Environmental Lawyer Do?

Over the last few decades, concern regarding the environment has increased significantly. In response to these concerns, laws have been enacted on the local, state, and federal levels with the goal of protecting natural resources and regulating businesses that impact them. The laws address a wide array of issues including water and air pollution, chemical spills, water quality, land conservation, and wildlife protection.

An environmental lawyer represents clients dealing with legal issues pertaining to the environment. These laws affect businesses of all sizes as they face the challenge of complying with hundreds of regulations while carrying out day-to-day operations. For instance, manufacturing plants have to make continuous updates on manufacturing processes and commercial real estate companies need advice on how to minimize environmental impact when building a new development.

The government also utilizes environmental attorneys in various ways. Lawyers may interpret laws, assist with risk assessment during disasters, and help create new policies. Nonprofit organizations rely on lawyers in this area of practice as well. These organizations may need to know the best practices for dealing with disaster relief or how to properly dispose of hazardous waste

While an environmental lawyer’s responsibilities vary from case to case, typical duties include:

  • Interpreting data
  • Giving expert testimony in court
  • Assess damage in natural disasters
  • Prosecute entities not in complies with environmental laws
  • Represent corporations, the government or other businesses in lawsuits
  • Counsel clients on their rights
  • Advise clients on current regulations
  • Advocate for the protection of natural resources
  • Represent individuals criminally charged with an environmental infraction

Professional Requirements to Become an Environmental Lawyer

All lawyers, including those specializing in environmental issues, must follow certain steps before they can practice law. To become an environmental lawyer, one must first earn a bachelor’s degree through an undergraduate program at a college or university. While law schools do not require a specific field of study, many students that go on to practice environmental law have a degree in environmental science, economics, or government.

Before receiving a bachelor’s degree, students must take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). This multiple-choice test assesses reading comprehension, analysis, critical thinking, and other skills critical to the legal field. The LSAT is one of the main factors used by law schools when considering admission applicants.

The next step one must take to become an environmental lawyer is to attend law school and receive a Juris Doctorate degree (J.D.). The three-year program involves studying law basics the first year, and a focus on specialized area the remaining two years. Students can also complete internships or clerkships while in law school to gain experience.

After finishing law school, one must take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) (this does not apply to residents of Maryland, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico). This exam ensures the aspiring lawyer’s conduct and professionalism meet the standards set by the American Bar Association (ABA) standards. The last step is to take and pass the bar exam in the state where they intend to practice.

Additional Education and Experience

After receiving a Juris Doctorate, one can go on to obtain a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree. This degree is internationally recognized, and it gives lawyers global credibility. Some schools offer a combined Master’s degree and law degree in environmental sciences.

Additional Licensing Requirements

All states set additional licensing requirements for lawyers, the most common being Continuing Education. Continuing Education is designed to keep legal professionals up-to-date with current laws and new case precedent. The number of hours required varies, as does the frequency.

Where Can You Work as an Environmental Lawyer

One of the most common places to work as an environmental lawyer is within a local, state, or federal government department. These attorneys may be called upon to assess risks, serve as advisors on environmental issues, or help create policies. Environmental attorneys may also work for non-profit organizations to provide legal assistance to different cases.

Lawyers in this field also work for law firms, usually ones that specialize in environmental law, or have a sector dedicated to it. The law firms often represent a variety of clients from real estate agents to large corporations. Large corporations that deal with environmental issues frequency may have in-house counsel.

While environmental attorneys spend the majority of their time in an office setting handling paperwork and preparing cases, they also travel to attend court, meet with clients, or visit the sites involved in the issue.

How do Environmental Lawyers Get Paid

How environmental lawyers get paid varies depending on where they work. An attorney in a government position or working for a nonprofit organization may receive hourly pay or salary. Some attorneys in this field set their own payment rates and methods. Most charge an hourly rate or a flat-rate fee. It is also common for lawyers to require a retainer fee. This fee is a portion of the total costs, paid upfront, and placed into a special account for the lawyer to use and he works on the case.

The amount charged varies based on what the case involves, the lawyer’s experience, and geographical location.

Environmental Lawyer Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) Occupational Outlook Handbook, average annual salary for environmental lawyers is $119,250 ($57.33/hr.) as of 2018. This is the average for all lawyers as the BLS does not distinguish between fields of practice.

Employment Outlook for Environmental Lawyer

The employment rate for lawyers is expected to increase around 8%, by 2026 according to the BLS. This is the average rate for all jobs in the U.S.

Hiring an Environmental Lawyer

When hiring an environmental lawyer, it is vital to conduct thorough research before making a decision. To start the process, set up an initial consultation with several attorney’s specializing in environmental law. These consultations are often done at no charge. During the meeting, you can ask questions about the attorney’s experience, track record, special skills, and fees.

The lawyer’s experience should be compatible with your legal needs and they should have the skills needed to properly handle your case. You should also feel comfortable working with the lawyer.

How to Find the Right Environmental Lawyer

Once you have decided you or your company needs representation, it is time to find the right environmental lawyer. This may seem like an overwhelming task but knowing where to start can relieve some of the stress. Personal and professional references are very reliable, so it is a good idea to ask for recommendations from family, friends, co-workers, and business associates. Lawyers know the skills and reputation of other lawyers, so if you know of one that practices in another field, ask them to point you in the right direction.

You can also use lawyer directory websites to locate a lawyer in your area. These law directories generally include information about the attorney such as experience and disciplinary records. The bar association website in your state may also publish a list of licensed attorneys.

Essential Information

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.), Master of Laws (LL.M.) is optional
Degree Field(s) Law
License/Certification Licensure in state of practice
Key Skills Critical thinking, negotiation, verbal and written communication, familiar with family law, ability to research, analytical, compassionate
Number of Jobs (2016) 792,500
Job Outlook
8% growth rate (average growth rate)
Median Salary (2017) $119,250*
On the Job Training Moderate term of on-the-job training
Top Earners Top earners in the field are generally employed by large law firms

(*Source: the BLS)