BlogCareersWhat Does an Environmental Lawyer Do?

What Does an Environmental Lawyer Do?

So, you’re passionate about the environmental movement but not sure how you can translate that into a career? Well, becoming an Environmental Lawyer might just be the job that you’re looking for!

This article will give you the low-down on what skills make a great environmental lawyer, what a typical day of an environmental lawyer looks like and how you can get on the path to becoming one.

Let’s get started!

Meet Jocelyn
What is an Environmental Lawyer?
Steps to Becoming an Environmental Lawyer
Future Outlook
Best Thing & Worst Thing
Advice for Aspiring Environmental Lawyers

Meet Jocelyn

Jocelyn has been practising as a lawyer since 2018 and is currently working for Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), a not-for-profit legal organisation that specialises in public interest environmental law.

How did you end up in this role?

After graduating with a double degree of Science and Law, Jocelyn’s university studies initially led her to work as a planning officer with the Department of Planning and Environment, enabling her to use her legal skills to interpret planning legislation and policies and work on  major metropolitan plans.

Jocelyn entered her first legal job with the NSW Environment Protection Authority, as a criminal prosecutor. After serving in the enforcement field for over 2 years, a position at EJA popped up in Jocelyn’s hometown of Newcastle and she jumped on it!

Studies and Experience

Jocelyn studied a double degree of Science and Law at the University of Wollongong. Afterwards, she undertook her Practical Legal Training (PLT) at a variety of public interest legal centres, including at a refugee legal centre, the Central Coast Community Legal Centre and the NSW Environmental Defenders Office.

Jocelyn recommends that students look for volunteering opportunities and encourage students to also get involved in organisations outside of the law, such as Clean Up Australia, the Nature Conservation Council, the AYCC or other grassroots organisations. This is a great way to network, help contribute to the community and demonstrate your passion!

What is an Environmental Lawyer - Quote

What made you want to work in this industry?

Ever since high school, Jocelyn has always had a strong passion for the environment and always pursued subjects that have an environmental focus. At university, Jocelyn made the deliberate decision to do a double degree in Science and Law, with a major in Human Geography, exploring the way that communities live, relate to and impact the environment.

Her decision to enter the legal space was brought on by her desire to advise and support communities that are experiencing the impacts of ​​poor environmental management and decision-making, especially climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.

She says, “I think that the law has a really important role to play in protecting the environment, and I think we’re increasingly seeing that with recent climate litigation. It’s a really interesting area to work in where we can use what is a fairly established and structured framework (legislation and the law) and find innovative strategies to achieve some really positive changes.”

What is an Environmental Lawyer?

Environmental lawyers are lawyers who specialise in environmental legislation and case law to advocate for the protection of communities and the environment. Whether it be by advising clients taking matters to court, working to reform the law, or developing legal strategies to achieve change, a public interest environmental lawyer is committed to the protection of the environment for the benefit of their clients and the broader community.

Different areas that an environmental lawyer may specialise in include:

  • Biodiversity, heritage and cultural protection
  • Water quality, air quality and pollution
  • Climate change
  • Renewable energy

Roles and Responsibilities

As an environmental lawyer, you can expect to draw on innovative ways to challenge government decision-making or government intervention points, find legal opportunities for clients and work on developing strategic solutions towards environmental issues. Some of the roles and responsibilities that you may perform daily include:

  • Providing legal advice to community members and environment groups
  • Writing submissions to government enquiries and providing oral evidence
  • Consulting and advising agencies, researchers, and scientists
  • Speaking to journalists about something pressing in the media that is environmental-related

Jocelyn tells us that the work of an environmental lawyer is diverse and varied. It often involves developing and advising on longer term projects, campaigns or law reform, which takes many weeks/months to finalise, whilst also advising on smaller, discrete legal questions and matters day-to-day.

An important aspect of her work is to obtain government information for clients under freedom of information laws.

She says, “My role assists communities impacted by coal pollution in the Hunter region, particularly the impacts arising from coal fired power station pollution. I provide advice and support to community groups on these issues.”

Which industries can this career be found in?

Due to the breadth of environmental issues facing communities, environmental lawyers are employed in a wide range of different industries, including:

  • Professional, scientific and technical services
  • Public administration and safety
  • Government sector
  • General planning and development
  • Waste management
  • Natural resources

Characteristics and Qualities

What is an Environmental Lawyer - Characteristics

According to JobOutlook, the main skills you need in a career as an environmental lawyer are:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Speaking
  • Critical thinking
  • Writing
  • Active listening

Knowing how to critically analyse a variety of information in a range of contexts and circumstances is an important skill.

Additionally, the heavy workload means that the ability to prioritise matters based on their strategic values is particularly important for public interests lawyers. Jocelyn says that learning how to communicate clearly is essential for engaging with different stakeholders.

She shares, “I often communicate with clients who have minimal legal knowledge or  understanding of environmental laws, so I have to make sure that I’m communicating with them in a way that they can understand the complexities of the information.

“I also communicate with journalists, government officials, and other stakeholders in the environment movement, such as campaigners. I have to adjust my style to best communicate with each of these stakeholders.”

Steps to Becoming an Environmental Lawyer

What should you study?

To become an environmental lawyer, you will need to have completed either a Bachelor’s degree in law or a postgraduate Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Once you’ve completed your degree, you will need to complete Practical Legal Training (PLT) to develop your practical legal skills in the workplace.

Some universities to consider to study a Bachelor of Laws include:

To be admitted as a practising lawyer, you must apply at your relevant state’s admission authority and decide whether you would like to practice as a barrister or solicitor. After that, you’re on your way to working!

How long does it take to become an Environmental Lawyer?

While a full-time study duration at university is typically 4 years for a singular Bachelor of Laws, students looking to become an environmental lawyer require additional qualifications to specialise by gaining industry knowledge of environmental legislation and policy.

As such, students usually complete an undergraduate double degree in environmental policy or environmental science.

Alternatively, students may go on to specialise by completing a postgraduate Master of Environmental Law. Overall, you’re looking at around 6 years of study.

What will this career look like in the future?

How in-demand is this career?

According to JobOutlook, solicitors have very strong job growth due to their very high skill sets. Jocelyn tells us that a career as an environmental lawyer is heading for growth as the demand for legal services in the environmental space is growing.

“Environmental law is becoming increasingly in demand as the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crisis accelerates.

Public interest environmental lawyers are also becoming increasingly respected by decision makers — as, collectively, we are really starting to have some significant wins in the courts and in policy reform spaces,” she explains.

Are there opportunities to grow or specialise?

As with any other job, Jocelyn confirms that there are plenty of opportunities to grow as an environmental lawyer and develop your professional skills to move into senior roles.

“It comes down to you to ensure that you’re getting the career growth and development that you need to feel supported at work, to feel satisfied in your job, to feel like you’re doing well in your job and feel that your career is tracking in a positive direction.”

Additionally, environmental law encompasses a whole range of issues, with areas to specialise in including climate change, planning, air pollution, water pollution, renewable energy, waste disposal and biodiversity.

Salary

Annual SalaryFuture GrowthSkill Level Rating
$85,000+Very strong over the next 5 yearsVery high skill

Influential Trends and the Future of this Industry

Undoubtedly, the increasing impacts of the climate and extinction crisis is accelerating the need for public interest environmental lawyers to advocate for environmental protection through legal frameworks.

As the consequences of climate change are growing more critical, the need for environmental lawyers to develop innovative and creative solutions to create change in the community and influence government decision-making is driving growth in the industry.

Roles for private practice environmental lawyers, such as planning and environmental risk lawyers, are also growing as corporate and private clients also seek to minimise their exposure to emerging environmental risks.

Best Thing & Worst Thing

What do you enjoy most about this job?

For Jocelyn, her enjoyment for her job derives from her engagement with passionate community members as part of an environmental movement helping to change the world for the better.

“I enjoy working with the community directly, whether that’s giving them advice on a specific issue or providing them with general legal education. We really service the community and the work that we do has to be in the interests of the community,” she says. 

“My personal motivation is that I take a lot of pride working for an organisation that is part of a movement for the global good. The way we care for the environment and issues such as climate change are global issues.

“Being part of a movement of people working to achieve environmental justice, and the collectivism that that involves, is very empowering and motivating,” she adds.

What do you feel is the worst part of this job?

Jocelyn says that the worst part of her job is not always knowing the answers!

“It’s not as straightforward as some legal roles that might have a clearly defined answer or procedure that you can follow to solve an issue for a client.

“In my current role, you’re trying to find answers to complex issues, all within a strategy with clear objectives. This means you’ve got to be extra innovative to find and create outcomes, but that’s part of the fun,” she shares.

Advice for Aspiring Environmental Lawyers

What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?

Jocelyn has one important point that she wishes she had known before she started working as an environmental lawyer — to understand that being a lawyer can take many forms. 

People often think of lawyers as being briefcase-toting, court-attending folk waiting for clients to approach them for legal services. While this is true of many legal roles, it’s not universal!

New ways of thinking have developed overtime that aim for systemic change through collective action led by communities and people most affected by the current system. This is coined “movement lawyering”.

“My job fits more into the “movement lawyering” category, and that’s something I am now continuing to strive for. It basically means that I am working to integrate my legal advice and interventions with other people working within the environment movement (such as community groups and campaigners) to ensure that my work is responsive to the vision and needs of impacted people.

“It also means I often work with clients to help them change the hearts and minds of others — that is, to shift public opinion. Because once that’s shifted, you can generally have a far more lasting impact than any single legal action alone,” Jocelyn highlights.

Why should people consider taking on this career?

“People should take on this career as there is no shortage of work in this space, and there is no shortage of passionate community people who want to make change and need lawyers to represent them and help them create that change through the legal framework,” says Jocelyn.

Jocelyn also advocates for people to join because of the professional and personal satisfaction they will gain through working for a collective objective to improve the environment and help communities achieve environmental justice!

She advises prospective environmental lawyers to volunteer with grassroots environmental organisations, as this will “hone your strategic thinking skills and allow you to understand the complex environmental issues faced by communities and the things they care about.”

Job Flexibility

The legal industry varies in job flexibility, yet Jocelyn says that legal organisations, particularly in the public interest sector, are becoming increasingly supportive of flexible work arrangements.

At EJA, Jocelyn is able to work remotely from her hometown in Newcastle while the rest of her team is based in Melbourne.

Being a lawyer is quite a demanding role and you will usually be expected to put in longer hours than your typical work week to meet your deadlines.

What is the workplace culture like?

Workplace culture can vary between different jobs.

“So far, I’ve been lucky that the roles I’ve been in have been surrounded by passionate, motivated individuals, who are all there for the right reasons. The environmental movement attracts a really great bunch of incredibly inspiring people,” says Jocelyn.


Ashley Sullivan is a Content Writer for Art of Smart Education and is currently undertaking a double degree in Communications (Journalism) and a Bachelor of Laws at UTS. Ashley’s articles have been published in The Comma and Central News. She is a film, fashion and fiction enthusiast who enjoys learning about philosophy, psychology and unsolved mysteries in her spare time.

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