Environmental Law Career: What do Environmental Lawyers do?

An environmental law career comes in three sub types; i) transactional work, ii) regulatory work, and iii) arguing in court (litigation).  Though not mandatory, usually an environmental lawyer career will focus on one of these sub types.

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What do environmental lawyers do?

Overall, what do environmental lawyers do?  Environmental lawyers navigate environmental laws that regulate and control the impact of human activities on the environment. This includes but is not limited to laws regarding preventing pollution, remediating pollution, and conserving resources.

Salary of an environmental lawyer.

It is very difficult to say what the average salary is for any lawyer, especially environmental lawyers…  First, understand that geography places a significant factor in any lawyer salary.  Urban areas have a higher demand for legal work and thus lawyers have higher salaries in urban areas.  Second, there are so many different types of environmental lawyers, and their salary range varies drastically depending on their employer.  Environmental lawyers represent and are employed by many private and governmental agencies, including; the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA), state Departments of Environmental Protection, regulated entities, law firms who represent regulated entities, public interest groups, FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers, Corporations, even the Department of Justice (because many environmental laws have a criminal component) and the Department of Energy.  Therefore, an environmental lawyer with some experience could easily make $120,000 salary in an urban area working for a law firm or a private manufacturing company, however, a lawyer working for a government agency will generally make half that salary.

How to become an environmental lawyer.

It is not necessary to have a background in science to become an environmental lawyer.  First you obviously have to obtain a college degree, and then apply to law school.  Once in law school if you are truly interested in an environmental law career, you should take as many environmental law related classes as possible (and even take outside continuing legal education courses to help you become an environmental lawyer) and then obtain some kind of summer job/internship during the summers during law school to give you some environmental law career experience to put on your resume.

The Career of an Environmental Lawyer:  Day to Day Work of an Environmental Lawyer

As previously discussed there are three main types of work for environmental lawyers, 1) Regulatory work, 2) Transactional Work, and 3) Litigation Work.  Let’s take a look at each type.

Regulatory Work: An Environmental Lawyer Working for a Manufacturer/Polluter.

Many environmental lawyers who do regulatory work either work for the government or a manufacturer, and this type of environmental law career will focus on permitting and preparing for and handling on-site inspections.  Governmental agencies are allowed to conduct routine and often surprise regulatory on-site inspections to ensure compliance with any environmental regulations that are applicable to a specific site facility.  These authorities can be federal, state, or local authorities.  Before an inspection occurs, the lawyer will assist in training all heads of facility managers for how to react to an inspection, what to say and what not to say, and to control any documents that are sent to any government agency, to make sure that no privileged material or irrelevant documents are sent out.  After the inspection it will be the lawyers job to follow up with the facility representative who escorted the inspector regarding what was said, photographed and who was interviewed.  The inverse will be true for a regulatory environmental law career working for the government; in such a case you may be conducting inspections and review proper permits and making sure the manufacturer follows all environmental regulations.

Transactional Work.

Other environmental lawyer careers focus on transactional work.  One such example would be a lawyer working in a law firm that focuses on real estate land transactions or development of contaminated properties, and negotiating contractual responsibilities of how those contaminated sites will be cleaned up.

Litigation Work.

Some environmental lawyers concentrate their practice on environmental litigation.  This can be either on the criminal side… (don’t forget that environmental law has a criminal component), or the civil side.  An example of this would be a case where toxic chemicals migrated into the drinking water and resulted in adverse health affects to nearby residents and the residents filed a lawsuit against the nearby plant that used those toxic chemical.

What do Environmental Lawyers do: The laws that Environmental Lawyers must know.

To gain a better insight into a career in environmental law, the best place to start is with the federal environmental laws.  First and foremost is the Clean Air Act…

Clean Air Act.

The goal of the clean air act is to protect citizens from airborne contaminants that are harmful to humans.  The Clean Air Act specifically sets national standards and regulates 6 pollutants in air; pollutants such as  Carbon Monoxide, lead, Nitric Oxide, ozone, particulates, sulfur dioxides, (and also greenhouse gases).

CAA Permitting.

The EPA or state environmental agency are both very strict regarding the Clean Air Act…  They just don’t let things slide.  If your client does not do things properly, they shut your client down, and violations can be very expensive.  Even simple administrative errors, can lead to possible criminal charges.  Also remember there are state and federal issues, so just because the state doesn’t pursue penalties, the Federal agencies can do so.

Self reporting is an important part of environmental law, and an important duty of someone in an environmental law career working in this capacity.  In regards to the Clean Air Act, polluters are required to measure the level of pollutants released by their facilities and make efforts to minimize the pollution, and forward reports of the measurements and efforts to supervising governmental entities.

Again, be aware that lawyers work on all ends of the spectrum regarding this Act and the other environmental laws…  You don’t just have to represent the polluter…  there are environmental lawyers who represent the company building the facility, the EPA or state environmental agency, and any possible environmental group attempting to prevent the construction of the air polluting facility.

Clean Water Act.

Similar to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act requires permitting, and penalizes parties for non-permitted discharges of pollution into water. 

The goal of this act is to reduce and eventually eliminate releases of toxins into America's waters.  What type of discharges are prohibited?  No one is allowed to discharge into navigable waters unless they have a permit to do so.

Again, similar to the Clean Air Act, in an environmental law career addressing permits for the clean water act, you will either be attempting to obtain a permit for your client from the State and county government (possibly even the municipality or township) to discharge into a waterway, or you may be a lawyer on the other side reviewing the permit, or perhaps even a lawyer who will file an injunction in court to block the issuing of the permit.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund).

What is CECLA?  Basically, CERCLA’s objective is to remediate (clean up) sites contaminated with hazardous substances.  More specifically, CERCLA Establishes a number of different regulations and focuses on the process of the clean up in a few phases:

1) First is the remedial investigation phase, where the extent of contamination is determined.

2) Next a feasibility study is conducted which identifies the cleanup strategies, or if it is better to just leave the contamination alone and not disturb the area. 

3) The cleanup: The cleanup option chosen is based on the imminent harm of the released contaminants.

Once a cleanup is completed (or remedy exercised), recovery for damages to natural resources is sought against any responsible polluting parties… the government can recover the cost of the damages that occurred to natural resources as a result of the release of the hazardous substances and then use those funds to repair and restore that natural resource.

Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA).

The objective of this act is to protect human health, and conserve resources by reducing the amount of solid hazardous waste generated, and further implementing a tracking of said hazardous waste from creation all the way until final storage or disposal.  RCRA achieves this goal by establishing a system of management of hazardous waste and similar to CERCLA, applies liability to owners, transporters and also those who dispose of the waste.

Toxic Substances Control Act.

This act regulates and applies to the production of toxic chemicals.  Let’s say you represent a chemical company and your client decides to create a new chemical.  The company must notify EPA of the manufacturing of the new chemical with a pre-manufacturing notice. The EPA may create a computer model to determine whether the chemical may pose unreasonable risks to human health. Then the EPA is allowed a certain window during which the EPA can block the manufacture of the new chemical, but if this window expires the chemical may be legally sold and manufactured.  This is one such way you might come across the Toxic Substances Control Act in an environmental law career.

Recent Environmental Issues.

There are two relatively new issues emerging that you should be made aware of if you are considering an environmental law career because they may generate a great deal of environmental legal work in the future…  these issues are: 1) Cap & Trade, (though defeated in the legislature at the federal level there are some multi-state regional initiatives); and 2) Renewable/Clean Energy – (this type of energy is generated from new technologies that create energy from clean and renewable sources such as; solar, wind turbines, wave, and geo-thermal.)


In conclusion, an environmental law career can be very interesting and challenging form of legal work.  You do not need a scientific background, it is an ever evolving area of law, which can include transactional work, litigation, or regulatory work, and there will be a continuing demand for environmental lawyers in the future.

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