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Practice Areas & Settings

Different Career Paths in Environmental Law

Jason Sanders and Mary Ellen Ternes


  • Environmental law is about using science, good public policy, and the courts to find solutions for the problems currently facing humanity and our planet.
  • Two practitioners share their stories of how they found themselves working in environmental law.
Different Career Paths in Environmental Law
Marjorie Li via iStock

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When considering a career in environmental law, you can find inspiration anywhere. Before getting to two practitioners’ stories, consider the following entryways into environmental law.

Entryways into Environmental Law

Natural Resource Preservation and Climate Change

Do you have fond childhood memories of building forts among trees that seemed so tall they could touch the sky? Use that passion to seek conservancy groups, land trusts, nonprofits, or law firms that are fighting to preserve old-growth forests or your city’s urban tree canopy. This work implicates both natural resource preservation and climate change: Trees can sequester CO2, a greenhouse gas related to climate change, and they reduce the heat island effect, resulting in cooler cities.

Water Quality and Environmental Justice

Have you always found yourself standing up for those who cannot do so for themselves? Were you moved by the water crisis in low-income communities in Flint, Michigan, or by the documentary detailing how opportunistic fracking operations exposed low-income communities in Pennsylvania to contaminated drinking water? Use that fire to look for opportunities in the areas of water quality and environmental justice (e.g., a waterkeeper near you, your state’s Environmental Protection Agency, or a water resource control board).

Clean Energy Land Use Advocacy

When you see the blades of a wind farm spinning in sync, do you feel hope for the future or a sense of responsibility to create green, sustainable cities for posterity? If so, look for organizations and firms that lobby for strong policies for renewable energy, storage, and transmission. Consider becoming a land-use attorney who helps secure the land on which the wind farm will be located or practice before your state’s public utility commission to ensure that efficient, low-cost energy is available to everyone.

Biodiversity and Endangered Species

Is there a special place in your heart for animals big or small, cute or ugly? Then try working for a nonprofit that litigates biodiversity and endangered species cases. Look for law firms that challenge development that could have adverse impacts on habitats.

You Can Find Career Inspiration in Every Facet of Life

Our ability to thrive as humans depends on having a healthy planet to call home. Earth can survive without us, but we cannot survive without it. Environmental law is about using science, good public policy, and the courts to find solutions for the problems currently facing humanity and our planet. It is relevant to nearly every facet of life, from the water we drink, to how we power our homes.

Unrelated Practice Area

Before I found my passion, I practiced in an unrelated area but knew I wanted more fulfilling work. By happenstance, I watched a documentary on water scarcity and privatization that featured a lawyer discussing how to use the law to combat these issues. I was enamored by how environmental laws could be used to protect the planet and help humans live healthier lives.

Volunteer to Gain Experience

I quit my job, volunteered at a nonprofit that handled water quality issues, and worked part-time, appearing at depositions to pay my bills. This opportunity was rewarding but did not result in a permanent position. I went back into my original practice area while performing discrete projects for other water quality firms or organizations to keep gaining experience. My current firm is one of those organizations. They liked my work so much that they offered me a full-time job.

My path was not a unique path into the field. I know of another attorney who took a similar path and is now a managing attorney at a large nonprofit environmental law organization.

Being Told “No”

As you look for your place in this field, you may hear the word “no.” Those with passion seldom take no for an answer. Conduct research on agencies (federal, state, or local), nonprofits, or law firms that handle a sector that interests you, then contact them. These acts alone show initiative and should not be underestimated.

No openings? Then ask for an informational interview or offer to take the hiring manager to lunch to learn more about what they look for in an applicant. Nonprofits and smaller law firms may have opportunities to work on discrete projects. Ask if there is some way you can help. Find your passion. You will need it.

Life as an Environmental Lawyer

I now get to research the Clean Water Act and climate change issues, present arguments to local agencies, and challenge those decisions in court if the agencies approve permits or projects harmful to the environment. I handle land-use and water quality issues, litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act, and matters before the California Public Utilities Commission, which includes proceedings for the decommissioning of the nuclear power plant in San Onofre, California.

—Jason Sanders

Calling All Second-Career Attorneys

Environmental law is an engaging legal practice. The law occurs in the context of complex and often counterintuitive regulations involving physical chemistry, toxicology, biology, geology, constitutional and administrative law, and environmental statutes.

As a private attorney representing industry, municipalities, and developers, after many years as a chemical engineer working for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and then the hazardous waste management business, I have had the privilege of tackling and resolving some of the most technical legal conundrums. It is rewarding to work in a field where regulators and regulated entities work together toward protecting public health and the environment.

The Role

As an environmental attorney, I counsel a wide range of clients, from energy producers, manufacturers, and commercial developers to municipalities, which also incur environmental liabilities.

The issues that arise may involve basic or complicated questions regarding environmental law. Typically, these basic questions involve whether a statute applies to a particular source of air emissions, water discharges, waste or release, and, if applicable, how to comply with the law.

My clients’ more complex issues arise in projects significant for their level of risk, liability, or investment. Examples include a chemical plant explosion and fire, significant commercial development, or the historic release of a hazardous substance impacting groundwater underneath a residential area. In these circumstances, my role entails close client communications required to coordinate mitigation and legal strategy; quick engagement and facilitation of oversight by the appropriate regulatory agencies while negotiating a mitigating response; documenting and preserving the record for future litigation; and identifying and working closely with qualified environmental consultants.

Environmental Law as a Second Career

You may enjoy practicing environmental law if you are interested in protecting the environment through legal avenues; advising businesses and manufacturers on issues of material risk and compliance with the law—or developing approaches to internalizing corporate environmental, social, and governance principles. Second-career attorneys with science or engineering degrees, particularly with prior experience in the environmental field, may find practicing environmental law rewarding because they can use their scientific expertise and practical implementation experience.

An Educational Background in Science

An educational background in scientific principles (which support environmental regulations) provides remarkable insight into advising clients and working with regulators and consultants. For example, my chemical engineering degree furthered my ability to implement the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) as an EPA Emergency Response Field Section On-Scene Coordinator (OSC). As an OSC, I was responsible for identifying, characterizing, and remediating releases of hazardous substances, including accidental releases from existing operations or abandoned hazardous waste sites.

To illustrate, an accidental release of hazardous materials into the air, soil, or water caused by a train derailment would need to be controlled to protect the environment and nearby populations. A relevant scientific degree or background can allow an environmental law attorney to understand intuitively the nature of the chemical release event, the likely harm that would result, and the probable remediation required. Even new environmental law attorneys with such backgrounds can work well with environmental consultants in advising clients regarding issues arising in emergency response and measures to prepare for that response, consistent with the law.

Experience in Compliance

Practical experience where regulators and regulated entities work together to achieve compliance can be invaluable. I first drafted Resource Conservation and Recovery Act hazardous waste incinerator permits for the EPA and then joined the industry as a compliance manager for a company implementing the same type of permit. This combined experience allows attorneys to appreciate regulatory intent and practical limitations in implementation, advising clients, and negotiating with regulators within that context.

Environmental law is a rewarding but challenging practice area where you can tackle complicated and ongoing environmental issues daily. Whether working for the federal government or industry, with a background as an English or engineering major, I have observed that attorneys who love the outdoors generally love practicing environmental law and will remain interested throughout their careers. Environmental law can be a uniquely satisfying field where collaboration is critical: regulators and regulated entities working together to protect public health and the environment.

—Mary Ellen Ternes