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What Does an Environmental Lawyer Do?

Environmental lawyers are typically advocates for the environment. They focus on protecting our natural environments and helping humans be safer in the natural world.

You may think the only issues environmental lawyers cover would be things like preserving natural parks, but environmental lawyers could work with anything from rare animals to human-made buildings to the air we breathe.

What Type of Work Does an Environmental Lawyer Do?

Most environmental attorneys handle a wide range of typical legal matters, like researching or taking cases to court. However, the range of environmental issues they may handle is extensive, such as:

  • Water quality, air quality, and pollution
  • Proper disposal of hazardous waste
  • Animal rights and species protection
  • Farming and agriculture issues
  • Preserving wetlands and protecting biodiversity
  • Better waste management systems
  • Sustainability and green strategies for the future
  • Green initiatives (for everyone from parks to cities to corporations)
  • Improved energy sources and clean technology
  • National green standards and new environmental legislation
  • Climate change laws and innovation
  • Native titles for land and environmental rights
  • Public land use and sea use
  • Resources and laws governing resource use (oil, natural gas, gold, etc.)

These issues can range from a small neighborhood problem to an issue on a global scale.

What Are the Duties of an Environmental Lawyer?

The main job is to assess, research, and strategize cases to represent their clients best. The laws are complex and can vary state to state, so environmental lawyers that know the local laws and focus on specific issues are in demand.

This role works closely with the official government environmental organization called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The five most important environmental laws to know are:

Cases might involve shutting down oil drilling to protect natural land or convincing courts that the environmental impact of adding new buildings is acceptable. Overall, attorneys in this field fight for (or against) what humans want to do to animals, land, or water.

Is an Environmental Lawyer a Specialist?

For an attorney to be a specialist, they usually need additional licenses and credentials. But, in many ways, environmental law attorneys are "specialists" because of their focus on geological and biological systems.

It isn't enough just to know laws. These lawyers need additional knowledge in science and biology to understand the impact humans have on the planet.

They also need to understand:

  • Conservation and ecology
  • Economy
  • Sustainability
  • Social responsibility
  • Theories of good stewardship

In just one case, they may handle important financial and sociological choices that impact whole communities of people and wildlife. In the next case, they might handle research and day-to-day filing of petitions. This role varies greatly based on the location, client, and case.

When Should I Hire an Environmental Lawyer?

You might want an environment law attorney when the problem involves the emotional and physical needs of people and animals.

You could find yourself in a variety of challenging situations that have a large environmental, financial, or public relations impact, such as:

  • Building commercial or private real estate on protected land
  • Buying or selling contaminated real estate
  • Cost recovery or remedial action for landowners
  • Wetland or feedlot regulations
  • Criminal cases that involve forest fires, hazardous waste, or people becoming ill from their environment
  • Assessing damages to land and water from a criminal act or natural disaster
  • Coaching a corporation on switching to eco-friendly practices
  • Animal preservation at zoos or farm animal/farmland issues
  • Federal or state litigation for superfunds, also known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA)

What Education Does Someone Need to Do to Become an Environmental Lawyer?

All attorneys need a four-year degree from a college or university, but this degree does not need to be in a related science field. They also typically need a Master of Laws (LLB) or a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from a law school. Environmental lawyers should take law classes that focus on environmental issues, and many choose to intern at law firms that focus on relevant topics.

To practice law in the courtroom, a law student needs to pass the bar exam in their state.

You will find that the majority of experienced environmental lawyers also seek their Master of Law (LLM) degree, a master's degree in Environmental Law, or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).

How Do Environment Attorneys Bill Their Services?

If you hire an environmental attorney, you can expect them to charge by the hour. Some cases may have a predetermined flat rate charge based on the type of work involved, like performing an assessment or reviewing documents. However, when an attorney is an in-house counsel for a business, they are often paid a salary.

What Questions Should I Ask Before Hiring an Environmental Law Attorney?

It would be difficult for environmental law attorneys to specialize in everything this area of law covers. It is essential to hire someone who has experience in the specific type of case you have.

To get a better idea of their experience, you should ask these questions:

  • How long have you been practicing in this area of law?
  • What percent of your time is spent working on an issue like [name the nature of your case]?
  • Do you have a focus on any specific areas within environmental law?
  • What information do you need for our first meeting?

How to Find an Environmental Law Attorney

Most people need an environmental lawyer who focuses on specific areas. Often, the best way is to search by your state or city and then review the top law firm profiles or websites to see their areas of focus.

Learn more about state-specific laws on this environmental law legal answers page.

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