As environmental, social and governance issues take on increasing importance for companies doing business in Europe, lawyers with ESG expertise are in high demand, and firms are looking to stock their practices with specialists who can help them service this wave of business for clients.
But it’s not so easy. In Europe, law firms expect job candidates to come in the door already possessing the specialized training and experience needed to contend with the increasingly complex and technical laws that govern the environment. There isn’t much room to learn on the job. The stakes are high—both for clients and for the planet.
And in the years to come, the lawyers these firms end up hiring will be an integral part of more practice areas—moving beyond the traditional public and administrative sectors to encompass corporate and commercial law, tax, finance, intellectual property and dispute resolution, law firm partners say.
Environmental law is “a plane on which more or less everyone is traveling,” Guido Callegari, a partner at De Berti Jacchia Franchini Forlani in Milan, told Law.com International.
When it comes to legal education, each country in Europe has its own views on whether lawyers need a broad-based background from which they can later specialize, or should start right away compiling a profile as an environmental lawyer.
In France, environmental law has been a recognized specialty for decades and several French universities, including the prestigious Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, offer degrees in environmental law—a qualification that is “indispensable,” according to Louis-Narito Harada, a partner at HK Legal, an environmental and energy law firm in Paris.
Environmental law is now a very technical field, said Harada, who practiced as a partner at Eversheds Sutherland for six years before co-founding HK Legal in 2021. In some programs, courses are taught by engineering professors, who give law students a grounding in the basics and language of environmental science—what are fine particulates, for example, and what are the criteria applied to their concentration in the atmosphere.
Italy also has several highly respected post-graduate programs in environmental law that include training in basic science—a must-have, Callegari said, for any lawyer who needs to understand that part of their client’s business.
“We cannot expect a lawyer to have the same level of science education as an engineer or a chemist, but they must be somewhat conversant,” he said. “They must know what they are dealing with.”
In Germany, while some universities offer elective courses in environmental law, aspiring practitioners need to offer much more to their future employers than grades on a transcript, according to Dirk Uwer, a partner at Hengeler Mueller in Düsseldorf.
“When people join us saying, ‘I want to do ESG work and environmental [law],’ they come with quite a package of thorough legal education—maybe even a doctoral thesis and published articles,” Uwer said, adding that they also come armed with CVs that are pages long, filled with research assistantships and other related work.
In addition, a basic background in public law and regulation is indispensable to practicing environmental law in Germany, said Uwer, who is co-head of the public law department at Hengeler Mueller. “You need to be, in the literal sense, a good jurist, with a very thorough understanding of how government and regulation work,” he said.
Harada agrees. Environmental lawyers need to master laws relating to water use, genetically modified organisms, emissions, waste disposal and treatment, noise, and even urban planning, he says. And they need to know how these laws work in real life and how to work within the system.
Environmental Law Is All Law
While regulatory law is foundational for environmental law, a full-service practice also offers tax advice on the financial impact of environmental regulations on companies; employment advice for worker health and safety; intellectual property advice to protect newly created technologies; and basic corporate and commercial law for the policies that companies have to implement to put themselves in line with new legislation.
And in Italy, environmental lawyers must have yet another skillset, De Berti Jacchia’s Callegari said. Their practice includes the protection of cultural heritage, reflecting the increasing focus by both the Italian government and international organizations like UNESCO on the preservation of heritage sites worldwide.
“Our heritage is part of our environment,” Callegari said. “And the protection of heritage involves problems not so different from the protection of the environment generally: air quality, water quality, sustainable use.”
If these lists sound daunting, it’s because the field of environmental law is becoming increasingly complex and specialized, lawyers say.
HK Legal’s Harada believes he will continue to see more work as clients begin to confront a range of emerging issues in environmental law, including greenwashing and consumer protection, carbon footprints, and vigilance plans—measures put in place by companies to identify risks and prevent severe impacts on the environment. Hengeler Mueller’s Uwer says most major firms today focus on broad climate issues and energy transition, advising clients on how to integrate the environment into their daily business practices.
At a time when environmental issues have moved front and center and ESG has become a major focus in the corporate world, there is little doubt that firms will need more environmental specialists to tackle their expanding role. And partners say they will seek out lawyers who see their work as part of a mission.
After all, Harada said, the best environmental lawyers not only help companies reduce risk, but also make them better corporate citizens.
He added: “It helps to have a desire to change the world.”