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Environmental Lawyers

The Job

The environmental law field is large, consisting of several main areas of concentration (air, land, water), categories within these concentrations (such as water pollution), and even further subcategories (such as hazardous waste). Environmental lawyers work for the private or government sector. Depending on the case, their tasks involve either defending clients or prosecuting other parties. Private-sector environmental lawyers typically defend and represent businesses that are facing government sanctions regarding environmental issues. Government environmental lawyers, on the other hand, work to enforce environmental laws and regulations. Their work entails prosecuting the parties that are responsible for pollution or other environmental transgressions in violation of federal, state, or local laws. 

As mentioned in the previous section, numerous environmental laws and regulations exist to protect land, air, water, wildlife, and human beings. Environmental lawyers must know environmental legislation well to successfully build and defend cases. In addition to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, other policies that lawyers refer to frequently in their work include the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act; Hazardous Materials Transportation Authorization Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; Safe Drinking Water Act; and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—more commonly known as Superfund. Environmental lawyers who begin their careers in government agencies usually receive lower salaries, but they gain more experience because they are usually directly involved in cases. In the private sector, senior lawyers typically handle the cases, relegating beginning lawyers to the backseat. Government lawyers may work within city and state’s attorneys’ offices; with air, water, and land bureaus within state environmental protection agencies; and with federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Federal, state, and local agencies collaborate by sharing resources and information to better enforce environmental protection laws. They prosecute many different types of environmental crimes, from air pollution to wildlife endangerment. Government environmental lawyers help in the pursuit of civil and criminal actions to enforce ordinances, statutes, and regulations at the federal, state, and city levels. Cases range from environmental remediation to public-nuisance abatements and injunctions regarding matters such as lead-based paint. Government agencies also work closely with public-interest or environmental advocacy organizations.

Private-sector environmental lawyers help corporate clients with such matters as environmental defense, compliance, and risk. They deal with mergers, acquisitions, and real estate transactions, and they provide advice, counsel, and strategy development. Cases they work on may involve such environmental issues as indoor air quality, land use and natural resources, solid and hazardous waste management, or brownfield restoration and site remediation. (A brownfield is an abandoned industrial or commercial site that may be contaminated but has the potential for reuse.) Environmental cleanup cases are especially complicated and stressful; private and government attorneys are typically on opposite sides of the fence regarding who is responsible for the cleanup. Environmental laws are also not always clear, which can complicate matters further. Early environmental laws required companies to clean up all contaminants they had introduced to the environment. In the past 10 to 15 years, however, laws have evolved that enable companies to reduce contaminants on a site to an “acceptable level,” where they pose no immediate threat to human health and the environment. This does not mean laws have gotten lax over the years, but rather that knowledge has increased regarding “natural attenuation”—a process by which some contaminants naturally diffuse over time. 

Environmental lawyers may also work for small, specialized environmental law firms. They may also start their own private practices, as solo attorneys or in partnership with other attorneys. Some pursue public-interest work, providing services for national conservation groups, such as the Sierra Club, that frequently rely on legal representation to accomplish their goals.

Some environmental attorneys find jobs as in-house counsel for large corporations, such as waste disposal firms and chemical companies. They provide legal advice to the company's executives regarding government regulations, litigation, compliance, and other topics. They may work closely with other environmental attorneys at private firms that are well versed in particular concentrations of environmental law and can lend further expertise based on their knowledge of the local politics, culture, and laws, as well as the local authorities themselves.

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