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Auto manufacturers falsify records to under-report the amount of pollutants their cars emit into the air. Ocean resorts dump waste into local waters on the sly. An advocacy group forces a state water control board to release its water quality reports to the public. These are just a few examples of actual lawsuits that environmental lawyers have brought to the courts in recent years.
The average salary of environmental lawyers varies across the country, but is in line with the median salary for all lawyers of $119,250.
Environmental Lawyer Job Description
When groups or individuals believe someone has misused or abused natural resources to the extent that it has endangered people, wildlife or the resources themselves, they hire environmental lawyers to plead their cases.
While any lawyer could represent clients in these types of lawsuits, environmental lawyers have the training and experience to do the best job. They know and understand the complexities of the many environmental laws and court cases that have set precedents in their rulings.
Environmental lawyers handle cases involving: air and water quality, protecting endangered animal species, hazardous waste disposal, sustainable agriculture practices, protecting wetlands, "green" practices to reduce waste, and much more relating to ecology and stewardship of the earth's resources. Lawsuits can come from both sides of an issue as well – an individual's right to use his land or to earn a living versus laws designed to protect the environment from the effects of certain uses that may have far-reaching consequences beyond the landowner's property.
Before taking any case to court, environmental lawyers conduct lengthy research, compile evidence and prepare lists of witnesses. They may also delegate some of these tasks to paralegals or less experienced lawyers who are learning the responsibilities of the job.
In addition to handling lawsuits, environmental lawyers advise their clients on the laws, rules and regulations governing a wide variety of environmental issues. By explaining the client's rights in a given situation, the lawyer helps the client decide how to proceed toward his or her goals while staying within the law.
Education, Skills and Salary
To become an environmental lawyer, you'll need a bachelor's degree and a law degree, which typically takes three years of law school after four years of undergraduate study. It is possible to enroll in an accelerated law school program and graduate in two years if you work hard. Your undergraduate degree can be in any subject. However, you'll be well prepared for the field if you study ecology and science courses that explain climate change, global warming and other environmental phenomena.
Some schools offer a combined law degree and a master's degree in an environmental area such as Environmental Law, Energy Law, or Food and Agriculture Law. Others offer a graduate certificate program in environmental law and policy issues. At least some of the coursework can be done online, so you could work as you earn the degree. UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Georgetown and Vermont Law School are a few schools well known for their environmental law programs.
A successful environmental lawyer should be able to focus on and understand complex issues; conduct lengthy research; interview scientists; communicate effectively to clients, other lawyers, judges and juries; and convey passion on the issues to persuade others.
The median salary for lawyers of all types in May 2017 was $119,250. A median salary is the midpoint in a list of salaries for one occupation, where half earned more and half earned less.
How much do environmental lawyers make? Salaries can vary considerably between states. Some sample 2017 salaries for environmental lawyers by location are:
- $66,760 in Montana
- $94,380 in Ohio
- $106,150 in NV
- $136,320 in NY
- $140,740 in CA
- $153,680 in Washington, DC
Where Environmental Lawyers Work
Some environmental lawyers work for law firms, while others may be self-employed or work for government departments or large organizations. U.S. News and World Report publishes a list of "Best Law Firms for Environmental Law" that contains 168 firms across the country. Like any "best of" list, it's a subjective compilation based on a set of chosen standards and, of course, the list can change each year. It does, however, indicate the popularity of working in this field and the need for environmental lawyers.
Environmental lawyers split their time between working in an office and trying cases in court. They work full-time and often overtime, especially leading up to important cases and during trials. The work can be stressful, but also rewarding if it's a field you're passionate about.
Years of Experience
With several years of experience and a winning track record, you might begin to mentor younger lawyers in the field, chair committees and handle more high profile cases. As your reputation grows to a senior level, you can command a higher salary.
Environmental Lawyer Job Outlook
The need for lawyers is expected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is about average for all occupations. As environmental laws continue to be enacted, retracted, pulled back and expanded again, depending on issues of interest to the public and numerous groups, environmental lawyers will continue to be needed to keep up on all the changes and what they mean to society and to their clients.
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.