Environmental law is a relatively new and dynamic area of the American legal system. With new legislation written and new judicial decisions handed down each year, the field has evolved to the point where–like tax law–there is a high level of specialization. This demand for technical expertise has led many aspiring environmental attorneys to earn LLM degrees in environmental law.
The bulk of environmental law stems from the distinction in economics between perceived costs and social costs. The basic idea is this: a company makes decisions based on the costs it faces. When a company contributes towards pollution, without environmental law there is no obvious, tangible cost. However, that pollution may later lead to very real costs such as medical bills for victims of pollution or decreased efficiency of agricultural land. The company essentially passed these costs — called social costs or negative externalities — off to somebody else, who is now left footing the part of the bill for the company’s operations while the company alone enjoys the profits.
Environmental law serves to create rules that shift social costs back to the companies that cause them. Attorneys working in environmental law have helped develop innovative legal theories to achieve this goal. In addition to simple limits on certain pollutants, lawyers in environmental law have come up with systems like cap-and-trade and environmental trusts. In a cap-and-trade system, companies who find ways to avoid pollution are given credits which they can sell to companies who do pollute. The companies who do pollute must either find technical ways to offset their pollution or purchase credits. In an environmental trust, environmental objects such as rivers are given lawyers who can sue polluters in court for money which is placed in a trust dedicated to maintaining the local environment and ecology of the environmental object.
Environmental law has led to some landmark Supreme Court cases, including Chevron v. National Resources Defense Council (2003), which upheld the regulatory power of the NRDC, and Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, which upheld an objection by the State of Massachusetts against regulations stipulated in the Clean Air Act.
Since environmental law is a relatively young field, many lawyers lack extensive knowledge of relevant statutes. An LLM in environmental law is a great way to acquire the technical expertise required of lawyers specializing in environmental law. Individuals holding an LLM degree in environmental law have the unique opportunity to become pioneers in an increasingly important area of law.
Environmental Law Career Options
Environmental law careers for lawyers take at least three main forms: 1. governmental positions in federal or state agencies tasked with environmental protection; 2. private practice, especially involving corporate defense in environmental litigation; 3. public interest work and advocacy. There is also significant transactional work for attorneys who specialize in environmental law. As environmental regulations vary widely from nation to nation, each jurisdiction has its own environmental specialists and practitioners will accordingly be able to find work from foreign organizations that need local expertise.
Below is a small sampling of environmental law career job postings. Similar postings may be found in your home jurisdiction.
Estimated Salary: $81,744 to $118,540
This governmental position is for a staff attorney post in the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District of Denver. This position involves responsibilities pertaining to both corporate, litigation and other types of law practice, including contract drafting and negotiation, drafting of resolutions, litigation of relevant environmental claims and advising on pending legislation.
Estimated Salary: Not listed
This in-house position with a non-profit organization appears to pertain mainly to litigation regarding environmental protection issues. The Environmental Research Center is “dedicated to reducing the use and misuse of hazardous and toxic substances, facilitating a safe environment for consumers and employees, and encouraging corporate responsibility.” Therefore, this type of position is mission-oriented and would likely require an attorney with a flexible array of skills.
Environmental Law/Products Liability Attorney
Estimated Salary: Not listed
This law firm position with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP is geared towards litigation and requires expertise in asbestos or medical malpractice law. A position like this further demonstrates the versatility required in the environmental law field because it shows the intersection of environmental law and health care issues. Not all environmental work is focused solely on the effects of hazardous substances on the environment directly; a great deal of work involves human exposure to harmful substances in one form or another.