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How to Become an Environmental Lawyer

June 11, 2024
4 min read


Reviewed by:

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 2/26/24

If you have a passion for the environment and want to pursue a career advocating for it, read on to learn more about how to become an environmental lawyer.

Four of the top ten risks threatening the globe are environmental concerns. At the top of this list are climate-related matters, particularly global warming and climate action failure. 

These matters, dubbed “existential threats to humanity,” require immediate action and policy to be controlled. Some of the most important professionals advocating for this change are environmental lawyers. 

If you’d like to be a part of this much-needed change, this guide offers insights into pursuing a career as an environmental lawyer. It covers their daily responsibilities, earning potential, and other relevant details.

Steps to Becoming an Environmental Lawyer

As you begin looking into this career, you’ll likely have several questions. One pressing question might be, “How long does it take to become an environmental lawyer?”

The short answer is that becoming an environmental lawyer will take at least seven years. The long answer is it depends on the level of specialized training you want and the time you take to complete each of the following steps involved in the process:

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

The first step in becoming an environmental lawyer is to complete an undergrad at an accredited university. 

While one of the most common majors pre-law students pursue is Political Science, you can choose any major as long as you’re able to maintain the necessary GPA to be considered competitive at your desired law school.

Step Two: Gain Experience

During your undergrad, you should try gaining experience advocating for the environment to better understand what it entails and confirm if you’re truly interested in pursuing it as a career. 

Your school will likely have an environmental club or association, and there are several volunteer opportunities you can join to begin getting your feet wet - perhaps literally, as there are various beach cleaning volunteer projects across the nation! You could also consider a pre-law summer program that offers a specialization in environmental law. 

There are also several environmental agencies and NGOs you can reach out to if you’d like to participate in specific conservation efforts.

If you’re interested in traveling, there are also various volunteer organizations that offer volunteer brigades across the globe. 

Step Three: Write the LSAT

While you’re still in your undergrad, you’ll have to write your LSAT to apply to law schools. While more law schools are now accepting the GRE in lieu of the LSAT, the LSAT is still the most trusted tool to assess students’ candidacy for law school.

If you’re hoping to join a top-ranking law school, you’ll need to score high on the LSAT. In order to do so, you’ll need to allocate an adequate amount of time to your prep and ensure you have a solid study plan that you can commit to. 

Since almost half of all test-takers retake the LSAT to reach their target score, this should be factored into the time you give yourself to write the exam. Ensure you don’t leave it till the last minute, as this can delay your application process and prolong the already extensive journey required to pursue environmental law.

Step Four: Complete Your JD 

Once you’ve written your LSAT, applied to your top choices, and gotten offers, it’s essential you pick the right law school to complete your JD. There are several law schools that are best known for their environmental law programs. When it comes to training as an environmental lawyer, schools across the US have top-notch programs. 

For instance, Pace University ranks as the number one environmental law program in the nation, with over 40 courses on national and international environmental, energy, conservation, and land use topics. 

Aside from picking a law school with a high-ranking environmental law program, you should also consider the experience and opportunity your law school can provide you. 

Joining a law school with an environmental law clinic can offer you hands-on experience working on real legal cases involving the environment. Not only can this experience confirm your choice to pursue environmental law, but it can help boost your resume to open more doors for you post-graduation.

Regardless of the law school you apply to, ensure you stay focused and maintain high grades! Your academic performance will strongly indicate the types of employment you’re offered post-graduation.

Step Five: Pass the MPRE

Most jurisdictions require students to pass the MPRE as part of the licensing process. This exam tests students’ ethics and professional conduct. Students typically opt to write this exam during the summer of their second or third year in law school. 

While this exam is only two hours long, you should still dedicate at least a couple of weeks to prepare for it!

Step Six: Consider an LLM

After step four, you have the education and experience to begin practicing environmental law. However, some environmental lawyers pursue an LLM in Environmental Law to receive more specialized training, higher pay, and greater opportunities.

LLMs typically take around one year to complete.

Step Seven: Pass the Bar Exam

Once you’ve received the legal education required to practice law, the final step is to prove you’ve absorbed all of the knowledge from your JD and can put it to practice. To do this, you’ll have to pass the bar exam.

As the final step in your journey, it’s crucial that you end on a high note by remaining focused and dedicating enough time and energy to your studies. The bar exam is extensive, and generally requires considerable preparation. The majority of students find at least three months of full-time studying to be enough to pass the exam.

Now that you know how to become an environmental lawyer, you can get started on your own journey by researching law schools with strong environmental law programs and seeking internships or volunteer opportunities with environmental organizations to gain practical experience in the field.

What Does an Environmental Lawyer Do?

While it’s obvious that an environmental lawyer is responsible for handling legal cases involving the environment, their specific duties involve: 

  • Analyzing data from cases, trials, and other sources
  • Advocating for environmental regulations, policies, and protections
  • Educating others on the dangers certain events or plans can have on humans or wildlife
  • Organizing and participating in campaigns and lobbying efforts
  • Encouraging public engagement by organizing environmental advocacy programs and forums
  • Assessing current or potential damage of certain events
  • Creating legal correspondence and documentation
  • Determining eligibility to represent individuals or agencies
  • Interviewing clients and organizations to compile evidence for a case
  • Acting as a mediator between landowners and business or governmental agencies
  • Consulting and advising agencies, researchers, scientists, and individuals

All of these general duties are applied to specific legal cases that can involve a wide range of environmental issues, such as:

  • Water and air quality
  • Pollution
  • Proper disposal of waste
  • Sustainability and green efforts for the future
  • Animal rights and species protection
  • Agricultural issues
  • Preserving wetlands
  • Protecting biodiversity
  • Energy sources and clean technology
  • Climate change laws 
  • Laws and resources governing resource oil
  • Native titles for land
  • Public land use and sea use

Environmental lawyers are also typically responsible for conducting significant research to draft appropriate policies and better advocate for their clients.

Where Do Environmental Lawyers Work?

While you might be picturing these lawyers working in the field tackling environmental crises head-on, they largely work in offices. Environmental lawyers typically work for private or public law firms, governmental organizations, or as educators in academic institutions.

While working as an environmental lawyer, you’ll likely be expected to travel to gather as much evidence and testimony as possible to build strong cases.

Environmental Lawyer Salary and Job Outlook

Another pressing question you might have is how much environmental lawyers make. Considering you’ll be spending an adequate amount of time and money on your education to become an environmental lawyer, knowing how much you’ll be making can ensure you’ll be rewarded for your hard work.

An environmental lawyer’s average salary is around $132,377 a year. Your earning potential can increase with more experience and depending on your location. 

As the global environmental crises continue at an alarming and urgent rate, the demand for environmental lawyers is expected to increase. Also, generally speaking, the job outlook of lawyers is expected to increase by 8% over the next decade and over 70,000 job openings. 

FAQs: Becoming an Environmental Lawyer

We’ve covered the essentials of this exciting career path. For any remaining concerns, here are the answers to frequently asked questions about this profession.

1. What Undergraduate Degree Is Best for Environmental Law?

While there is no perfect degree to prepare you for the rigors of law school, students interested in environmental law may want to pursue a major in Environmental Science to broaden their knowledge on the subject.

However, since you’ll be gaining specialized training during law school, you should focus more on choosing a major that you can maintain high grades in than choosing one you believe will look best on your application. 

2. Where Do Environmental Lawyers Get Paid the Most?

Environmental lawyers are paid the highest in Alaska, where their average salary is $144,510. Oregon is the second-highest-paying state for environmental lawyers, with an average salary of $144,414.

3. Is Environmental Law Stressful?

Environmental change is often slow and frustrating. It’s difficult to convince individuals and organizations to make significant changes that threaten the convenience and comfort they’ve gotten used to or are looking forward to. 

As this type of law deals with issues that significantly threaten humanity, stakes are extremely high, and there is a lot of pressure on these lawyers! 

4. How Much Do Top Environmental Lawyers Make?

Top environmental lawyers can make more than $200,000 a year.

5. How Long Does It Take to Become an Environmental Lawyer?

It will take at least seven years to study environmental law: four years to complete an undergraduate degree and three years to complete a JD. Students interested in completing an LLM can expect to add at least one more year to this timeline.

6. What Is the Best Law School for Environmental Law? 

Pace University currently ranks as the best program for environmental law.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to become an environmental lawyer, it’s time to start thinking about whether it’s the right fit for you. Are you passionate about making a difference? If so, environmental law offers the chance to make a real impact on the world. 

As one of the few professions that is actively fighting against the most daunting existential threats to humanity, environmental lawyers make a real and significant impact on the world! By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can be part of this change and ensure the world is a safer place for everyone!

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