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.
- 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.
- The pandemic and lockdown measures meant that the 2020 UN climate summit in Glasgow was pushed back to November 2021. Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief, stated: “Emissions must peak this year if we want to limit warming to 1.5C and the Paris agreement set the Cop26 summit as the moment when all countries would ramp up their targets in line with the steep emissions decline, we need to see in this decisive next decade.”
- Fracking was effectively banned in the UK following a government moratorium in November 2019. Environmental protesters and legal challenges had made defending the practice very difficult in the run-up to this; the High Court had ruled in March that then-current guidelines surrounding fracking were unlawful because they ran contrary to scientific evidence.
- 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.
- 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. Already in 2021, the UK government has ruled that businesses can dump untreated sewage into rivers and oceans, after disruption to supply chains at ports left businesses struggling to obtain water treatment chemicals.
- 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.
- There has been talk of a new law to end deforestation in supply chains. The Global Resource Initiative (GRI) submitted their recommendations to the UK government in March 2020; the new law would make it illegal for UK companies to create products from violating ecosystems and breaking local regulations around tree logging. Destruction of trees and land is currently responsible for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In September 2020, the government responded to the GRI’s report, vowing to reduce the UK’s role in global deforestation over the next 25 years.
- Climate protests – Extinction Rebellion foremost among them – have drawn greater attention to environmental concerns, sometimes through potentially criminal acts. Just as legislation to counter climate change is likely to increase in the coming years, so too will laws surrounding how far members of the public can go to draw attention to the crisis. Over 500 people were arrested during the group’s two-week run of protests in August 2021.
- 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.