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Law School Students Should Consider Practicing Environmental Law

Recent years' events reflect environmental law is a rapidly evolving area of legal practice. It has traditionally been thought of as an area of law that encompasses the two broad categories of regulation of pollutants and natural resource conservation/ allocation. However, it also touches on energy, agriculture, real estate, and land use, and has expanded to include international environmental governance, corporate law, international trade, environmental justice, sustainable growth and development, food law, and climate change. Environmental law practice often requires extensive knowledge of administrative law as well as aspects of tort law, property law, legislation, constitutional law, and land use law.

Environmental lawyers generally practice one or more of the following kinds of law: regulatory, transactional, litigation, or public policy advocacy. Regulatory lawyers help draft environmental legislation and regulations relating, for example, to waste cleanup, air quality, water quality, coastline management, land use, and other protective measures; they also take part in site inspections, advise clients on compliance with environmental laws and regulations, and provide representation in administrative and rulemaking proceedings related to the development and implementation of environmental policies and procedures. Transactional attorneys help identify the environmental and land use issues involved in a variety of transactions, including the purchases and sale of property and businesses; they often draft agreements, engage in negotiations, assess the costs and risks of decisions that impact the environment or implicate environmental law, and help clients develop solutions to environmental problems that could affect business transactions. Litigating attorneys bring cases on behalf of individuals, groups, or government entities to enforce environmental laws and regulations; they also litigate with insurance carriers for coverage of environmental liabilities and defend against agency enforcement actions as well as toxic tort lawsuits. Other environmental attorneys work at many levels to influence the development of public policy—sometimes focusing on specific issues in an area of the environment, like species protection or water pollution prevention and sometimes focusing on broader issues like sustainable strategies (a set of actionable steps that a company takes to improve their impact on the community and the environment), alternative energy sources, or green initiatives; they frequently engage in organizing and lobbying to affect policy.

Environmental law attracts lawyers who are interested in how we impact the geology and biodiversity of our planet. Environmental law practitioners perform a wide variety of functions, often helping to shape governmental and corporate policies and actions on a national and international level. Since federal statutes drive much of environmental law in the U.S., attorneys often work for or with administrative bodies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and their state-level equivalents. However, environmental lawyers also work for nonprofit organizations, private law firms, and corporations; many environmental attorneys work in several of these settings during the course of their careers.

For those considering an environmental law career, here are seven facts legal experts say you should know about this field:

  1. You don't need an undergraduate degree in science. Experts say aspiring lawyers who had humanities majors in college shouldn't be discouraged from pursuing environmental law careers.
  2. Environmental attorneys aren't always businesses' adversaries. Although environmental attorneys who work for public interest organizations often file lawsuits against companies that violate environmental protection regulations, other environmental attorneys represent regulated companies.
  3. Legal assignments will vary. Sahana Rao, an associate at Sive, Paget & Riesel P.C., says she enjoys the fact that she does both litigation work and regulatory practice.
  4. Protocol is critical. Rao says one aspect of environmental law that some people find frustrating is the many documentation requirements. Companies that follow environmental protection regulations but fail to file proper paperwork can get in trouble. "Good intentions don’t always get you brownie points in environmental law," she says. "There are certain protocols you have to follow and certain records you have to keep, and that’s just the way it is."
  5. Law schools without a formal program can still provide high-quality courses. Though aspiring environmental lawyers should take courses in environmental law, it isn't critical for them to attend a law school with an official concentration in this discipline, Rao says. "There are several law schools that have great environmental law programs," she says, "but there are also law schools that are just excellent law schools that have great environmental law classes.”
  6. Diverse skills are important for employability. Experts warn that the ebb and flow of environmental regulation enforcement means the demand for environmental attorneys changes depending on the political climate. Rao says it is prudent for aspiring environmental attorneys to diversify their legal skill set into related fields such as real estate law and government relations. Gaining a broad range of legal skills, Rao says, will make aspiring attorneys more marketable and reduce their chances of being underemployed.
  7. Law school clinics can provide a solid foundation for an environmental law career. Rao, the NYU alumna, says an environmental law clinic can help students gain valuable introductions to potential career mentors and decide whether this type of legal work is right for them.

For more information, visit https://www.kosnar.com.

Company Contact

Carl J. Kosnar
In-House Counsel/Past Foundation President
Solana Beach ECO Rotary Club Foundation

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