What Is Environmental Law? Everything You Need To Know

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Are you passionate about combating climate change and keeping the world safe? If so, you might consider a career in environmental law.

This article explores how to become a lawyer who specializes in the environment. Here, we explain everything you need to know about this impactful career path, including law school admission requirements.

What Is Environmental Law?

Environmental law refers to any regulations enforced by local, national and international entities that affect how humans treat the world around them. This broad term applies to all aspects of the law that protect our environment. Environmental law encompasses any policies that ensure climate stability and the safety of natural resources such as land, water, minerals, forests and air.

History of Environmental Law

Throughout history, world leaders have taken initiatives to protect human health by regulating the environment. In 1306, under King Edward I, England prohibited the burning of sea coal in London to improve air quality. Other 20th-century environmental policies include:

Types of Environmental Law

Climate Change

According to the World Health Organization, climate change impacts water, air quality, shelter and food resources, all of which factor into human health. These determinants are precisely what climate change policies seek to preserve. Climate change law ensures that the Earth remains a habitable abode for humans and animals to thrive for the foreseeable future.

Climate change lawyers advise clients on technological innovations that can help reduce carbon emissions and global warming.

Energy Law

Energy law includes all legal provisions governing the use and taxation of renewable energy sources (e.g., hydropower, geothermal, solar, wind and biomass) and non-renewable resources (e.g., nuclear, coal, oil and gas).

Government-affiliated attorneys in this sector assist in developing and enforcing energy regulation policies. Private energy lawyers may also act as in-house counsel for utility companies.

Environmental Justice

This aspect of environmental law protects poor and marginalized communities from exposure to resource extraction and land use hazards. Environmental justice attorneys represent these low-income communities by suing the government agencies and corporations responsible for harmful exposures.

Food Law

Food laws govern the cultivation, processing and transport of food. This subcategory of environmental law protects public health by regulating the distribution and consumption of food. Attorneys in this field protect consumers’ interests by suing government agencies and corporations for perpetuating food processing practices that negatively affect human health.

International Environmental Law

The international environment goes beyond the U.S. government. In this case, power resides with international bodies set up to target specific environmental problems (such as air pollution and ozone pollution) that affect different countries.

International environmental lawyers help draft treaties that bind member states of an international organization. These professionals also ensure the implementation of environmental laws and settle disputes among members.

Land Use Law

This aspect of law governs the use of land, setting legal standards for city planning and zoning. Land use attorneys may work in the public sector, enforcing land usage policies to protect natural resources and wildlife. They could also work for corporations and developers, using their skills to challenge land use limitations stipulated by the government.

Natural Resources Law

Natural resource laws govern the use and protection of environmental resources such as water, timber, minerals, oil, public lands and wildlife. Lawyers in this field advise real estate developers on executing their projects according to the state’s natural resource laws.

Pollution Control

Pollution control law prohibits the use and spread of substances that contaminate air, soil and water. These laws are often drafted and enforced by pollution control attorneys on behalf of the government.

Water Law

Water laws protect rivers, lakes and oceans from pollution. These policies guard aquatic organisms and humans alike. When people have access to clean water, this reduces the risk of contracting waterborne diseases. In addition, water laws preserve aquatic ecosystems by keeping marine habitats free from oil spills and other carbon emissions.

What Do Environmental Lawyers Do?

Salary and Responsibilities

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not report on environmental lawyers specifically. However, lawyers as a group earn a median annual salary of $127,990, according to the BLS.

As illustrated by the various types of environmental law discussed above, environmental lawyers may tackle a wide variety of responsibilities. Their duties may include:

  • Advocating for environmentally friendly legislation
  • Researching environmental laws on specific cases
  • Advising corporate clients of the legal consequences of violating specific environmental policies
  • Interviewing people of interest and gathering admissible evidence to build cases against government bodies or corporations
  • Representing clients and low-income communities in trials

Work Environments

Environmental lawyers may work in a variety of environments, including the following.

  • Government. Environmental lawyers can work for federal, state or local government organizations to draft and enforce environmental policies. Some government agencies that hire environmental attorneys include:
    • The Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD)
    • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)
    • The Boston Conservation Commission
  • Nonprofits. Working at a nonprofit organization allows environmental lawyers to advocate for the public good. In these work settings, lawyers might face litigation challenges due to limited resources. However, attorneys can achieve a good work-life balance at nonprofits while pushing for environmental justice.
  • Private public interest law firms. Most of these firms defend individuals and local civic groups against institutional actors (e.g., corporations and government). However, lawyers working at private public interest firms might also represent governmental agencies when it’s in favor of social good. Working at this kind of law firm may improve your earning potential since these firms are for-profit organizations.

Choosing an Environmental Law Program

Choosing a law school is about much more than prestige. Let’s look at some crucial factors that aspiring law students should consider before selecting an environmental law program to attend.

  • Accreditation. Accreditation by the American Bar Association (ABA) signifies that a school follows the standard curriculum for legal education. Graduating from an ABA-accredited law school qualifies you to sit for the bar in any state. Some U.S. states may not allow you to sit for the bar exam if your law school is unaccredited.
  • Budget. Evaluate your financial status before deciding which law school you’ll attend. Choosing a law school that falls within your financial limits is ideal. Keep in mind that law school costs vary. For example, tuition at private universities tends to be much more expensive than public university tuition.
  • Location. The state where you receive legal training can greatly impact your tuition and living expenses. If you want to attend a public law school, consider attending one in your state to cut down on tuition and travel expenses.

Admission Requirements for Environmental Law Programs

Below we list the standard prerequisites for gaining admission into any law school.

  • Bachelor’s degree. Law school candidates must have completed a four-year undergraduate degree and achieved a relatively high GPA. In most cases, a GPA of 3.5 or higher can improve your chances of admission.
  • LSAT or GRE scores. Most JD programs require applicants to take the LSAT, though some law schools accept the GRE as an alternative. LSAT scores range from 120 (the lowest possible score) to 180 (the highest possible score).
  • Personal statement. This short essay—required for admission by most JD programs—asks applicants to articulate who they are and why they want to attend law school. Your law school personal statement allows you to demonstrate your writing skills and distinguish yourself from other applicants.
  • Recommendation letters. Law school admission boards often expect two to three recommendation letters from individuals who have worked with you in academic or professional settings.

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