In a nutshell

Environment lawyers advise corporate clients on damage limitation and pre-emptive measures, and they defend them from prosecution. In other words, the majority of private practitioners work for, rather than stick it to, big business. Opportunities do exist at organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but these jobs are highly sought after. Another non-commercial option is to work for a local authority, a government department such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or a regulatory body like the Environment Agency. However, be aware that hiring freezes and spending cuts have decreased the number of opportunities in the public sector.

Environment law overlaps with other disciplines such as property, criminal law, corporate and EU law. Environmental issues can be deal breakers, especially in the modern era of corporate social responsibility. However, the small size of most law firms’ environment teams means there are few pure environmental specialists around.


What lawyers do

Lawyers in private practice

  • Advise on the potential environmental consequences of corporate, property and projects transactions.
  • Advise on compliance and regulatory issues to help clients operate within regulatory boundaries and avoid investigation or prosecution.
  • Defend clients when they get into trouble over water or air pollution, waste disposal, emission levels or health and safety. Such cases can involve criminal or civil actions, judicial reviews and even statutory appeals. They may also be subject to damaging media coverage.

Lawyers with local authorities

  • Handle a massive variety of work covering regulatory and planning issues plus waste management and air pollution prosecutions.
  • Advise the authority on its own potential liability.
    Lawyers working for Defra
  • Are responsible for litigation, drafting of subordinate legislation, advisory work and contract drafting on any of Defra’s varied mandates.
  • Work in a team of lawyers including Government Legal Service trainees.

Lawyers working for the Environment Agency

  • Prosecute environmental crimes – this involves gathering evidence, preparing cases and briefing barristers.
  • Co-operate with government lawyers on the drafting and implementation of legislation.
  • Work in Bristol and six regional bases, and are responsible for protecting and enhancing the environment. They also regulate corporate activities that have the capacity to pollute.

The realities of the job

  • In this competitive and demanding field, all-round skills are best complemented by experience in a specific area. The way in which environmental law spans disciplines requires commercial nous and a good understanding of corporate structures.
  • Excellent academics are essential to help wade through, extrapolate from and present research and complex legislation. You also need sound judgement, pragmatism and the ability to come up with inventive solutions.
  • A basic grasp of science helps.
  • If you want to change environmental laws or crusade for a better planet, then stick to the public or non-profit sectors. The sometimes uncomfortable realities of private practice won’t be for you.
  • Client contact is key and relationships can endure over many years. Environmental risks are difficult to quantify and clients will rely on your gut instincts and powers of lateral thinking.
  • With visits to waste dumps or drying reservoirs and a workload that can span health and safety matters, corporate transactions and regulatory advice all in one day, this is neither a desk-bound nor a quiet discipline.
  • Research constantly advances, and legislation is always changing in this field, so you’ll spend a lot of time keeping up to date.
  • A taste for European law is essential as more and more EU directives prescribe the boundaries of environmental law in the UK.

Current issues

October 2023

  • After another summer of record-breaking temperatures, the environment is increasingly at the front of everyone’s minds. In May 2022, the Bank of England published its first climate stress test on seven of the UK’s biggest lenders. It reported that UK banks and insurers could face losses close to £340 Billon in climate-related claims by 2050. The test suggested that a surge in loan and mortgage defaults, investment losses and climate lawsuits would all contribute to this figure.
  • In July 2022, the High Court concluded that the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy breaches the Climate Change Act, as the minister delegated to approve it did so without all the information they needed. The case was brought by Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and the Good Law Project, against a backdrop of NGOs taking aim at governments and big businesses over the lack of climate action. These three organisations will be bringing another case to the High Court in 2023, this time challenging the UK’s compliance with the Climate Change Act with the new revised net-zero strategy and Carbon Budget Delivery Plan. Listen to our interview with the Good Law Project to find out more about the organisation. 
  • Ukraine is building a legal case against Russia for environmental damage caused by the Russian invasion. which would take into account the $350 billion cost to rebuild the country, oil spills, water pollution and harmful emissions.Although such compensation is rare and complex, this wouldn’t be the first instance of conflict-related environmental payouts; in the 90s, Iraq paid Kuwait $3 billion for environmental damages.
  • Environmental law is increasingly becoming more accessible across different sectors. For those who are looking to begin or enhance a career dedicated, there are organisations that provide platforms for learning, development, and networking. UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA) connects environmental law professionals together and provide opportunities to collaborate on environmental law. The Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) provides free advice and runs University law clinics where students have the opportunity to work on real-life law cases for communities.
  • We now know the facts of the climate crisis. Addressing the issue and adopting environmentally sustainable policies are fundamental to many major businesses now, meaning law firms are increasingly required to trumpet their sector expertise. Western governments are now collectively implementing legal frameworks to honour experts' recommendations; a major example of this is the UK government's pledge to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. In April 2021 UK government vowed to cut emissions by 78% by 2035.
  • Fracking was effectively banned in the UK following a government moratorium in November 2019. Although Liz Truss suggested lifting the ban during her time at No10, Rishi Sunak has stated that the ban will stay in place unless new scientific evidence proves it can be done safely.
  • Nuclear energy also remains a hot topic. The development of a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset has been marred with delays and increasing cost estimates, with one estimating the project will cost consumers £50 billion, but involved parties remain confident it will go ahead. Other planned sites in the UK have been cancelled after the withdrawal of Japanese investor Hitachi. Law firms are currently helping companies to negotiate the minefield of regulations as they prepare applications for nuclear development opportunities. In August 2021, Wales revealed its plans to develop ‘small-scale’ nuclear reactors on the Trawsfynydd site that used to house one of the UK’s first nuclear energy plants. But this project won’t be anywhere near complete until the 2030s.
  • The COP27 climate summit took place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in 2022. There were debates over removing the 1.5C goal and even reducing usage of all fossil fuels, but ultimately it resulted in the same conclusion as the Glasgow COP26 summit: deciding to cut down on coal usage and sticking to a 1.5C maximum temperature rise. Climate finance was a key part of discussions as developed countries had not followed through on their commitment to provide$100 billion a year to help nations suffering the effects of climate change. A number of African-led initiatives were also introduced, such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) and the African Cities Water Adaptation Fund (ACWA). 
  • Brexit resulted in a loss of influence over EU environmental policy for the UK and the potential domestic effect is difficult to gauge. EU member states have historically been more willing to tackle environmental issues collectively, due to the reduced risk of businesses being undercut by competition from fellow European states. Leaving the EU reduces the incentives for the UK to maintain its current level of environmental regulation – especially in the event of any economic downturn. 
  • The UK government has plans to scrap a whole host of EU-derived legislation from 31st December 2023 under the retained EU law bill (REUL). The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs is predicted to be hit the hardest, as hundreds of DEFRA laws will be revoked at the end of the year. The majority of UK environmental law comes from the EU, so legislation relating to pollution, water and wildlife (among others) could soon be lost.
  • In 2020, a coalition of leading UK and international campaign groups (including Greenpeace, WWF and the National Trust) constructed a manifesto demanding that the government continues to cooperate with the EU on energy and climate change, while also introducing policies and investment to create new farming and fishing industries. Some 194 MPs from across the UK's political parties have pledged their support.
  • In June 2023, the EU introduced a new regulation on deforestation-free supply chains. This will affect operators and traders, who have to implement the rules within 18 months of the introduction of this regulation. Specifically, companies will have to 'conduct strict due diligence’ when selling or exporting palm oil, coffee, soy, cocoa, cattle, rubber and timber. They will also have to prove that their products were not produced on land that has been affected by deforestation since the end of 2020and must respect the rights of any local communtiies who may rely on the forest ecosystems. In 2023, the government updated the Public Order Act to introduce new offences such as ‘locking on,’ increasing penalties for those who do cause serious disruption. 
  • The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was expanded to include all of Greater London in August 2023. The aim of the ULEZ scheme is to reduce air pollution in the capital by putting people off driving in the area. Cars that don’t pass the standards for clean emission now have to pay to drive into the city, and TfL has installed cameras to enforce this.£160m has also been put towards a scrappage scheme, allowing Londoners to claim up to £2,000 to scrap their vehicle. However, the scheme has been met with controversy due to the financial impact it will have on the public during the cost-of-living crisis. The High Court has dismissed legal challenges to the scheme, and the number of polluting vehicles has reduced while air quality has improved since ULEZ’s introduction. 
  • Keep on top of changes in environmental law using websites like www.endsreport.com. You can enhance your CV and prime yourself by joining organisations such as the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) and the UK Environmental Law Association. The charity ELF provides a referral service for members of the public, organises lectures in London and produces regular newsletters for members.