Green Careers: Environmental Law
Do you have brilliant writing and public speaking skills? A sharp, analytical mind? You might find success as an environmental lawyer. Today, find out what practicing environmental law entails and tips for getting your career started. If you're still not sure which green profession to pursue, make sure to take our quiz.
Green Careers: Environmental Law
Environmental lawyers focus on litigation dealing with a wide range of concerns, from air and water quality to wildlife protection. They develop policies and engage in lawsuits to prevent environmental damage, compel waste cleanup, tighten regulations, or compensate individuals for harm due to environmental contamination. They're crucial advocates, preventing the government and corporations from engaging in practices that could hurt the environment and local residents. But an environmental attorney might also represent government agencies and businesses by working on environmental impact planning and sustainable growth and development. Cases could involve a builder’s use of toxic paint; a company’s contamination of groundwater used for drinking; or an irrigation system’s harmful impacts on endangered fish species.
Practicing law involves much more than the emotionally-charged trial proceedings of courtroom dramas. Lawyers spend most of their time in the office—not in court—since most cases, especially in environmental law, are settled before trial. Attorneys work mostly independently, with help from interns, secretaries and/or paralegals, but they’ll usually work in teams for high-profile cases. Since they often need to complete large, time-sensitive projects, attorneys clock in well over 40 hours per week, with many working as many as 80 hours per week. Occasionally they’ll travel for on-site visits or interviews.
A typical day begins with reading up on the latest developments of current litigation under environmental laws. Usually an environmental attorney will also talk with clients, interview key people for cases, research legislative and case law, visit sites of possible environmental law violations, and write legal briefs and memos.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, competition to practice any law is high due to more individuals graduating from law schools then there are jobs available. But federal and state governments are passing new environmental laws for the first time since the 1980s, which could create a need for more lawyers to enforce and defend these laws. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median annual wage of lawyers was $112,760 in May 2010.
To practice law, you’ll need a bachelor’s and law degree, as well as bar certification. There’s no preferred major, but majoring in environmental sciences or policy to give you context could provide context for the study of environmental law. Take courses that develop your reading and writing skills, as well as your ability to reason critically and analytically, and get involved in leadership activities to hone your public speaking skills. Law schools weigh academic performance, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores, the personal statement, letters of recommendation, and activities/experience in their admissions decisions.
Wondering which law schools will prep you for an environmental focus? The U.S. News and World Report ranked Vermont Law School, Lewis and Clark College (Northwestern), Pace University, and the University of California, Berkeley as the top three environmental law programs, with Pace and Berkeley tying for the number three spot.
Internships can offer valuable experience to list on your resume, finding a position that specifically focuses on law can be difficult for those who aren’t law students. Internships at environmental policy firms can allow you to observe how the law and lawyers shape society. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, offers a three-month, full-time policy and legislation internship in Washington, D.C. Interns will learn how a non-profit environmental organization weighs in on environmental policy at the federal level and insight into the policy process and associated procedures. They’ll assist in online research, attending congressional hearings and coalition meetings, preparing and disseminating information to congressional offices, and a number of other tasks. Applicants should have exceptional writing, organizational, and communication skills, as well as working knowledge of online research and MS Office software.
For law students, the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program offers internships throughout the year at the club’s headquarters in San Francisco. Interns work on all aspects of litigation, including researching, preparing written memoranda, and conducting factual investigation. Interns may also draft notice letters, briefs and other pleadings, attend court appearances, and work on discovery, or the pretrial fact-finding phase. The program also includes informal discussions on various environmental litigation topics. Applicants should have strong writing, analytic, and interpersonal skills. An environmental law background is preferred, though not required.
Since the Sierra Club program accepts applicants on a rolling basis, apply ASAP for the summer program by emailing a cover letter, resume, references, writing sample, and law school transcript. The internship posting also lists a mailing address, but electronic submissions are preferred.
Don't fancy yourself a lawyer? There's more than one way to preserve the planet through the legal process. You can assist an attorney as a clerk or paralegal, mobilize others against environmental harm as a community organizer, or help pass green legislation as a lobbyist or elected official.
Image by iStockphoto/Natalia Lukiyanova
Melissa Pandika is an editorial intern at Sierra and a graduate journalism student at Stanford University. Her interests include environmental health and justice, urban environmental issues, and conservation biology. She has a soft spot for cetaceans.