Environmental lawyers specialize in regulations, laws and disputes relating to the environment. The field encompasses a wide range of issues, including biodiversity, agriculture, species protection, hazardous waste, water and air quality, and waste management. As environmental law increasingly includes “green” issues, a lawyer may work with clients seeking to increase their company or organization’s sustainability education efforts and projects, as well as awareness of climate change implications, alternative energy sources and other eco-friendly initiatives.
In general, job prospects for lawyers in general are expected to keep pace with the national average for all occupations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of lawyers will increase by 10% from 2010 to 2020, with robust competition as the number of law school graduates exceeds available jobs.
The employment outlook for environmental lawyers may be more promising. As sustainability becomes more of a global priority, lawyers likely will be needed to advise clients on sustainability issues and green standards. The likelihood of additional legislation and regulations relating to greenhouse gases, climate change and global warming also means the need for environmental legal expertise could increase in coming years.
As with any career, employment and advancement opportunities for environmental lawyers will depend on the local competition, market and regulations. Individuals pursuing this career should plan on exploring local availability as well as resources in other locales.
As of May 2010, the median annual wage for lawyers nationwide was $112,760, with those who own their practice typically earning less than partners in law firms, the BLS reported. Salary potential will differ according to factors such as title, responsibilities, availability and geographic location.
Lawyers normally complete four years of undergraduate study and then three years of law school. In most states, lawyers must earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from a school that is accredited by the American Bar Association. For undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career as an environmental lawyer, courses in government, history, public speaking, English, economics and mathematics likely will provide useful preparation, as will electives or science courses related to environmental issues.
Law schools typically offer elective environmental law courses during the second and third years of study, including courses that focus on major federal statutes and other regulations. In addition, students may participate in seminars and legal clinics focusing on environmental law in order to gain experience and handle real-life disputes.
After earning a JD degree, lawyers must pass the Bar exam in order to be licensed to practice law. Requirements for admission to the Bar vary by state. Also, according to the BLS, most states require lawyers to complete legal continuing education courses, generally every year or every three years.
Like other new attorneys, environmental lawyers may start their careers as associates, perhaps representing a public interest advocacy group, government agency or private company.