Environmental Law Degree

Why an Environmental Law Degree?

Environmental law is the legal specialization that deals with the regulation and use of natural resources and the laws in place to protect wildlife and the environment. It encompasses the body of regulations concerning permissible discharge levels of industrial pollutants, laws designed to prevent environmental degradation and habitat destruction, and the standards and processes in place for the containment and clean-up of environmental contaminants. Since these considerations are particularly applicable to oil and gas extraction, many attorneys and paralegals who specialize in environmental law work in the fossil fuels industry and for the state and federal agencies that regulate it.

For people studying for a degree in environmental law, the question “why” hardly needs to be asked. Their appreciation of nature runs deep, and they believe in the capacity of the legal system to preserve and protect it.

Picking up a master's degree in environmental law provides the tools it takes to protect natural resources and wildlife behind a bulwark of policy and regulations, while going on to earn a JD and LLM in the field puts lawyers in a position to proactively fight for environmental causes through aggressive enforcement and litigation.

The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. In a very material way, all aspects of production, trade and commerce tie back to the natural world we live in, making environmental law an area of practice with a lot of influence over how business gets done. Big demonstrations and public protests get all the press, but in the end it's concerted legal action and legislative wrangling that accomplish the big wins in environmental protection.

As population pressures and the slow-motion crisis of global climate change continue to alter the environment and test the effectiveness of the regulations in place to protect it, the field will continue to become more influential and occupy a bigger place in public discourse.

Job Prospects with a Degree in Environmental Law

Environmental law is a diverse field with many critical sub-specialties that show up not only in the different tracks offered in master's and postgraduate LLM programs; but also in the regulations on the books and in the cases that law firms and regulatory agencies specialize in dealing with:

  • Alternative and mainstream energy
  • Architecture and urban planning
  • Green manufacturing
  • Pollution mitigation and environmental cleanup
  • Biology and forestry
  • Food and agriculture
  • Transportation

Not every environmental lawyer suits up to spend their days delivering arguments in a courtroom as a way to gain ground on issues in these areas. That's definitely one option open to you, but there are many others.

Do you want to be the next Julia Olson, leading grassroots efforts to bring big oil and the federal government to account for ignoring the data on global warming for decades? … Are you interested in pursuing equitable land-use regulations to further social justice goals like in the legal fight still raging over the Keystone XL pipeline between first nations people and oil interests? … Maybe you want to go head-to-head with state and municipal agencies that turn a blind eye or put cost-savings ahead of health like in the case of the Flint water crisis?

Maybe you're interested in gearing up for the next big fight, this time a global one, over carbon emissions and climate change?

All these causes are perfect examples of why many people choose to become environmental lawyers. But they certainly aren't the only ones.

Society runs on laws, and lawyers learn a set of skills that give them the insights to both adapt those laws to different scenarios, and to petition to change them entirely when necessary. Since environmental considerations are so inextricably connected to both industry and the organizations responsible for overseeing and regulating commercial operations, environmental law specialists have a place in both camps.

Representing Industry

Although environmental law specialists most often represent people, communities and regulators, they can also be found working in the industries subject to environmental regulations. From energy to agriculture to healthcare to manufacturing and transportation - a diverse litany of sectors all actively recruit environmental lawyers and paralegals to do things like:

  • Develop and draft environmental impact statements
  • Document remediation efforts
  • Develop corporate policy to proactively address environmental concerns
  • Ensure regulatory compliance… and litigate on behalf of corporations when they fall out of line

Representing Regulatory Agencies and Watchdog Groups

The biggest players on the team responsible for establishing and enforcing environmental protections are definitely federal regulators like the EPA, FEMA, USDA, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Forest Service, along with state departments of ecology and other state and regional regulators. But they aren't alone.

Government regulatory agencies are joined by countless scientific consortiums and inter-agency departments like the U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Soil Conservation Service.

Vast teams of environmental law specialists work on behalf of people and the environment behind the scenes in these organizations to do things like:

  • Draft and amend regulations for state, federal, and local governments
  • Prosecute corporations that violate environmental laws
  • Partner with nonprofits, universities and advocacy groups for legal actions and public information campaigns
  • Negotiate international environmental standards and treaties

And this is to say nothing of the countless watchdog groups, universities, nonprofits, and human rights groups fighting the good fight through class action lawsuits, taking cases pro-bono in defense of entire communities and population groups impacted by environmental negligence and abuse.

It's a fast-moving segment of legal practice that offers many novel and interesting questions of law. For most people coming into the field, it's not a matter of finding an aspect of environmental law that holds their attention, it's about deciding which area will allow them to have the biggest impact.

The practice area is expansive, and the legal questions are constantly changing as science continues to uncover a deeper understanding of how our actions impact the environment. This means you can count on solid career prospects whether you step into the field to take on a support role with a bachelor's or master's degree in hand, earn a JD and pass the bar to become a newly minted lawyer, or go to specialize in a niche area with a postgraduate LLM in environmental law.

The Path to Becoming an Environmental Lawyer

A law degree, typically referred to as a JD, or juris doctor, is a three-year post-bachelors program that gives you the highly specialized education to understand legal procedures, proceedings, and rulings. If you decided that going all the way to the top rung is the best way to effect the kind of change you want to see, these are the basic steps you'll take to become an environmental lawyer:

  1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree in a Relevant Field - Law schools do not generally require a degree in pre-law, although that is one path to a JD. For prospective environmental lawyers, it's often better to earn a four-year degree in a field relevant to the type of environmental law you plan to specialize in, whether that's natural resources management, political science, or ecology.
  2. Pass the LSAT - A passing score on the Law School Admission Test is a critical part of earning a JD, and every ABA-accredited school in the U.S. requires it of applicants. While the score is not necessarily the determining factor in gaining admission, a higher number can only help your prospects.
  3. Be Admitted to Law School - Law school admissions are famously competitive, especially for the most prestigious universities. A high LSAT score will help, but you will also impress admissions committees if you have relevant experience, a high bachelor's GPA, and a clear goal and the ability to articulate it.
  4. Earn your JD - Just getting in is hard enough, but staying in school and walking away with a JD is even more of a challenge. The ABA Journal posted law school attrition rates for 2014-2016 that show a range from 1.8% to 25.3% among schools, with the primary difference between high and low performing schools being the LSAT entry scores among students. That means that what you put into your undergraduate work and LSAT preparation has the potential to influence how you perform in your JD program. No matter what, it takes a lot of studying and hard work to earn that JD.
  5. Pass the Bar - To be admitted to practice in any court in the country requires passing the bar exam and ethics test for your state. Although it's a multiple choice exam, the pass rate is less than 50 percent on the first try in many states, and law school graduates view it as the most formidable part of the process.
  6. Earn your LLM in Environmental Law - Earning an LLM is an optional step reserved for the most ambitious, but many attorneys with their sights set on a career in environmental law see it as a necessary one. Going for a postgraduate degree like this is how you go from specializing by experience alone to absolute mastery of legal concepts and precedent in environmental law. The areas of environmental law that you currently litigate or want to move into will inform your decision about going with a niche specialization track in your LLM - whether energy law, food and ag, natural resources and land management, or another area.

Environmental Law Degree Overview: Standard Legal Curriculum and Options for Specialization

You can make environmental issues the focus of your legal training with a JD in environmental law, but for anybody who graduated with a generalist JD, the postgraduate LLM is the path to specializing.

Whether or not you went with a JD that included an environmental law emphasis, the largest part of your legal training will be the same basic legal education that every law student goes through. This means it will include courses in:

  • Administrative Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Civil Procedure
  • Contracts
  • Property
  • Torts
  • Constitutional Law

You'll learn everything from how to research case law to how to dress in court. There will be specialized classes in legal research and legal writing, and those topics will be reinforced in just about every other course you take.

You'll compete for externships that will put you in actual law offices and regulatory agencies to practice what you've learned, and you'll participate in moot court settings to get a feel for how actual courtroom arguments and proceedings play out.

It's a foundational education designed to teach you to be rigorous in thought and clear in expression; skills that are necessary in making and winning legal arguments in any area of law.

Whether as part of a JD in environmental law, or later through a specialized LLM, specialty courses will require you to apply those same skills to the field of environmental law:

Energy Law - The energy sector is vital to modern life and industry, and it's also one the biggest polluters on the planet. This puts energy law front and center in any graduate program in environmental law. You'll learn about the legal, economic, structural, and social issues behind current regulations, and study how new technologies are affecting the sector and the planet.

Clean Air, Water, and Climate Law - Modern environmental law was born of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and these courses will teach you their history and application in the context of current day debates on climate science and greenhouse gas regulation.

Hazardous Waste and Environmental Protection - The responsibilities that fall to both industry and government in managing hazardous waste, and the compensation due to victims when those management efforts are subverted or fail, are both covered in the context of regulation as well as tort law and precedent.

Land Use Planning and Public Lands - A hot-button issue that often pits competing environmental interests against one another, land use studies can be a precursor to the zoning, building standards, valuations, taxation, and eminent domain provisions enacted by state and local authorities. Expect this course to give you a primer on both sides of the issue for a full picture of property and natural resource rights versus environmental protections.

Food and Agriculture Law - Various food safety and animal rights laws and standards are covered in environmental law curriculum, as well as overlaps with land-use regulations as they apply to agricultural development and pollution standards.

Degree Specializations Available to Environmental Lawyers

Beyond the specialty courses found in any environmental law graduate program, you'll have to make a number of choices along the way about how to direct your studies. Law schools offering environmental degrees often have an array of concentrations in the catalog, including:

  • Policy
  • Energy
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Wildlife
  • Ocean and Fisheries
  • Land Use
  • International Environmental Law
  • Wetlands and Water Use

The bachelor's degree you go with long before applying to law school can significantly impact both your odds of being accepted, and the knowledge that you bring with you into your graduate studies. This means your undergraduate focus will have some influence over the options available to you and the concentration you end up going with.

Not every school offers every concentration. Certain schools have a reputation for greater expertise in certain areas; a fact that can impact what you get out of the program, as well as what future employers think when they look at your CV. What you have learned, where you learned it, and who you networked with along the way are all important factors in legal hiring.

How an LLM Can Leave You Better Prepared for a Career in Environmental Law

As an option designed to enhance the expertise of lawyers who have already passed the bar, the LLM (Master of Law) can be found offered as a generalist degree in environmental law or in a sub-specialty like food and agriculture law, energy law, or natural resource law. You'll also find LLMs that drill down even further into niche aspects of broader areas of law, with concentrations under energy law, for example, offering an even narrower focus in oil and gas law as an option.

A one or two year LLM on top of your JD allows you to get past the basics of legal education and truly focus on the code and precedent in your field. You can expect instructors to work with you to tailor your education to your particular practice, and you could even get a chance to work on active cases under the guidance of some of the best legal minds in the field.

Some schools offer joint programs so you can earn your JD and LLM simultaneously, saving you time and allowing you to move directly into practice with a high level of expertise that's hard to get even from years of experience in a support role working with attorneys litigating these kinds of cases.

Dual LLM/master's degree programs are also available as a postgraduate option for practicing attorneys, providing an even deeper exploration of specific elements of environmental law than you could get from an LLM alone:

  • LLM/Master of Environmental Law and Policy
  • LLM/Master of Energy Regulation and Law
  • LLM/Master of Arts in Restorative Justice
  • LLM/Master of Food and Agriculture Law and Policy

Reduce Expenses and Your Carbon Footprint by Earning Your Degree Online

In tracking tuition data from ABA-approved law schools for the 2018-19 academic year, the average annual tuition rate for a public law school was found to be $28,186. Private schools were even higher, at $49,312.

Even coming in cold, everyone knows two things about becoming a lawyer: there are other fields besides environmental law that you go into to make the big money, and no matter what kind of law you'll be practicing, going to law school doesn't come cheap. Having a chance to save a little money is one of the things that makes online programs so appealing to many prospective environmental lawyers.

By eliminating your daily commute, you're spending less while keeping your carbon footprint to a minimum. Handling everything electronically eliminates that conflicted feeling you get from preparing for a career with an environmental focus while still relying on wasteful 20th century practices like printing out research papers. Multiply that by your entire cohort, and extrapolate that out to all the other cohorts doing the same thing and you can almost start to see the needle move.

But cost savings and a green approach to getting your education aren't the only benefits of earing your degree online. In any field of study, online courses offer the assurance of more convenience and greater flexibility in how and where you put in the hours required to get through your graduation requirements. At the heart of most online programs are the asynchronous courses that help eliminate schedule constraints that might conflict with your other commitments to your job and family. And if you just happen to do your best thinking at one a.m. at your kitchen table, then this gives you a way to do that.

Accelerated and self-paced scheduling options available in online programs also give you the chance to either accelerate your studies and earn your degree in less time, or stretch them out if a full-time load is too much to take on.

Online programs offer a cost-effective, flexible way to earn an environmental law degree through top-flight law schools around the country.

The Importance of Accreditation in Environmental Law Degrees

Accreditation is the process of evaluating an educational institution or program with respect to overall quality and the degree to which it delivers the kind of education the profession demands of new graduates.

Institutional Accreditors

Every university that houses a school of law will hold general institutional accreditation from one of the six regional accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education (DOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). This kind of basic accreditation is universally standard, and can be expected of any reputable school operating in the U.S.

The American Bar Association

In the U.S., law schools and specific programs that confer a JD hold an additional level of recognition for quality and purpose of mission through American Bar Association accreditation. Because ABA accreditation is required to be admitted to the state or federal bar, an ABA-accredited school is really the only choice for anybody with plans to become an attorney.

The ABA extends the work of the regional accreditors by evaluating specific standards for the legal education designed to prepare graduates for the bar, while ensuring the curriculum is in-line with the high expectations of both the legal profession and the American judicial system.

The ABA currently recognizes more than 200 law schools and JD programs in the U.S.

The ABA also serves as a voluntary professional organization for legal professionals and students, with members worldwide. For over 130 years, the ABA has offered support to legal professionals, served to accredit law schools, and helped establish a working model for ethical codes in legal practice.

Read more about environmental law.