What kind of work do environmental lawyers do?
I'm thinking about going into environmental law because I love English and I'm passionate about sustainability and the environment, but I don't know a lot about what kind of work it involves. Are there different types of environmental lawyers? Does it involve a lot of writing and editing? Are they typically involved in policymaking?
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I also work with Corporate Affairs (Government Affairs). Some of them have law degrees (but not a requirement, and not specializing in environmental law). The product stewards work with the Government Affairs attorneys to advocate on public policy. Most often, we work on influencing proposed environmental regulations.
In doing advocacy work, we have to write position papers. We also review draft regulations by the government who are seeking input from the public and affected stakeholders. The papers are not written with legal references (or written by an attorney); instead, we are writing company position papers (which sometimes becomes an industry sector white paper) to explain how a propose environmental regulation will benefit or harm the company or the industry.
If you are interested in environmental public policy work, you may want to (1) work for a large company, (2) work for an industry trade association, or (3) work for a law firm. For (1) and (2), a legal degree is not necessary. A degree in environmental science (like chemistry), or an engineering degree would definitely be useful. Or a graduate degree in public policy.
You may also want to work close to a government center if you want to focus most of your time on public policy work. This could be your state capital, or Washington DC. Or work abroad at other government centers (e.g., Brussels for the European Commission).
Environmental regulations are developing fast and most industry sectors and companies will need help. Also, you may want to focus on an sub-category of environmental topics. Example, hazardous materials is your thing? Or energy efficiency? Or take back, waste, recycling? Or a combo of stuff under the Circular Economy developments?
I know of a few peers who ultimately working with environmental law and would say that in general, becoming an environmental lawyer is more of a specialization rather than an entirely independent field of practice. For example, environmental issues come up all the time in real estate transactions and one portion of the work involved determining if it's safe to build residential property in an area where, say, there used to be a chemical plant or dumping ground in the distant past. I also know someone who became a "water" lawyer handling farmer river usage rights, which people take a lot more seriously than you'd expect.
Regardless of the specific subset of environmental law, knowing how to draft letters and review documents is a staple part of lawyering and having those skills early is a great boon.
I would say there are two paths to policy making. With enough time and experience in the field, the prospect of being in the position to take on a novel matter comes up from time to time and this could be a place where you could change existing policy. The other path would be to work towards becoming a legislative assistant in the state you want to practice in.
Hope that helps,