What it Takes to Become an Environmental Lawyer

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How to Become an Environmental Lawyer

As the challenges facing our planet continue to mount, environmental law—which focuses on protecting the natural environment—has become a highly popular field to be in.

Curious to know more about how to become an environmental lawyer? In this guide, we’ll explore the post-secondary education path to becoming an environmental lawyer, salary, career outlook, along with the many rewarding career opportunities that await today’s graduates.

Tree sprout growing from the dirt

What does an environmental lawyer do?

In broad strokes, environmental law focuses largely on controlling pollution and protecting our natural resources. Drill down a bit deeper, and you’ll see that a vast spectrum of issues are covered within this—including:

  • Climate change
  • Air quality
  • Water quality
  • Waste management
  • Chemical safety
  • The protection of living species
  • renewable energy.

Environmental lawyers work across a variety of sectors, performing roles in government agencies, nonprofit organizations, law firms, or as in-house legal counsel at corporations. 

For instance, an environmental lawyer at a multinational company may provide advice on how to comply with a vast range of environmental regulations, such as properly disposing of hazardous waste. 

Someone employed by the government may assist in drafting and enforcing legislations or regulations. 

Or a lawyer at a firm that specializes in environmental law may represent a client who is suing someone from breaking a land use law.

As you can see, the field of environmental law is tremendously vast—which makes it an especially exciting career path.

Environmental lawyer walking down courthouse steps

How to become a lawyer: The post-secondary education path 

Environmental lawyer education requirements typically consist of seven years of post-secondary education: A four year undergraduate degree and three year Juris Doctor (JD) degree from an American Bar Association accredited law school. But there’s more to it than that. Below we take a closer look into the journey of becoming an environmental lawyer. And for more information on becoming a lawyer, generally, check out our post on the educational requirements for becoming a lawyer.

Obtain a relevant bachelor’s degree

The first step in your path to becoming an environmental lawyer is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. While there aren’t any requirements on which area you choose to study, some of the most common majors for environmental law are science, environmental studies, political science, economics, humanities, and English.

At this stage, the success of your law school applications will hinge on two key factors: Your GPA (an average of 3.5 on a 4.0 scale is common for many schools), and a strong score on the LSAT. Beyond this, you’ll also need to provide a compelling personal statement and strong letters of recommendation in your application.

Curious about other law practice areas? Check out our resource hub to learn about the different career pathways you can take in law school.

Consider working in the field after graduation

Sometimes, our expectations of jobs can be markedly different from reality. For that reason, it’s worth trying to land a summer job at a law practice after you’ve graduated from university. By working in an administrative or research role—especially within the environmental law sector— you’ll gain invaluable hands-on experience that will help you decide if this is the career path you wish to pursue. You may also be introduced to mentors who can play a profound role in shaping your career.

Top law schools for environmental law

The next step when it comes to environmental lawyer education is to obtain your JD-degree at an ABA-accredited law school—which typically takes three years. Some top law schools for environmental law in the US are Harvard University, Columbia University, Lewis & Clark Law School, Pace University, University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Los Angeles, and Vermont Law School. You can search for more schools on the Law School Admission Council website and read our blog post on the top law schools.

Once you’ve enrolled in law school, you’ll spend your first year learning the ins and outs of law through compulsory courses that span from civil procedure to criminal law. Your second and third years will be about tailoring your studies to areas you’re passionate about. For aspiring environmental lawyers, this means you’ll be able to take classes like energy law, land use law, or marine resources law—to name a few. You may also take courses on emerging technology in legal, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the kinds of AI tools lawyers are using. You’ll also gain a deeper understanding of key laws, such as the Clean Air Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Endangered Species Act.

Essential extracurricular activities for environmental law

Of course, it’s advantageous to immerse yourself in the field in ways beyond attending class. Consider joining a student organization or extracurricular activity if the university has one. For instance, you can become involved in an environmental law society or become an editor of your school’s environmental law journal. Volunteering and interning at organizations can also play a powerful part in getting you closer to the field. Along with enhancing your experience, this has the added benefit of expanding your network.

Speaking of networking, another way to meet key industry players is to look up associations that are focused on environmental law, especially as many tend to host events. For instance, the American Bar Association has an Environment, Energy, and Resources section that frequently hosts events that offer educational and networking opportunities with environmental law legal experts.

Writing the bar exam

As you reach the end of your program, you’ll take the bar exam—successfully passing it is a requirement for practicing environmental law. Typically this is taken during law school, but it can also be written after you graduate. At this stage, you also have the option to earn an advanced degree, like a one-year Master of Laws (LLM) in Environmental Law, to further strengthen your knowledge in the field.

Applying for jobs in the environmental law sector

Once you’re equipped with a JD degree, along with a stellar resume that tells the story of your budding passion for environmental law, you’ll be set to start applying to jobs. Now is the time to get your cover letter and resume ready. Furthermore, ensure you’re prepared for common lawyer interview questions.

As one of the most wide-ranging legal practices, environmental law offers students a world of possibilities once they graduate. You can work with a government agency, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Park Service. Or you may want to consider working for an environmental nonprofit, like Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, EarthJustice, or the Environmental Defense Fund. Many law firms also have practices that focus on environmental law, providing plenty of job opportunities to launch your career.

Environmental lawyer salary

The average salary for an environmental lawyer in the US is $181,586, though salary depends on location, years of experience, and level of education. For example, environmental lawyers in San Francisco make the most at $270,894, averaging total compensation 49% greater than the US average.

Career outlook for environmental lawyer

Attorney roles are expected to grow 10% from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

Final thoughts on environmental lawyer education paths

As our planet continues to face pressing issues that span from climate change to global warming, there’s never been a better time to consider entering the field of environmental law. A career in this in-demand and highly rewarding area of the legal sector has the potential to make a difference today and create a better world for generations to come.

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