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

  • Addressing climate change and adopting environmentally sustainable policies are important to many major businesses now. As recycling and waste management becomes more complex and demanding, businesses in these sectors are growing, encouraging law firms to trumpet their sector expertise.
  • Over the past 20 years the number of climate change related or relevant laws worldwide has increased twentyfold to more than 1,200.
  • The past decade has seen an increased focus on renewable energy in the UK, and in 2016 wind farms generated more power than coal for the first time. The UK now has a total of 8,879 wind turbines and renewables provided more power than coal plants on 315 days in 2017. The government aims to phase out any coal-derived power generators that lack the technology to capture and permanently store carbon emissions by 2025.
  • Despite environmental protests, plans for fracking (hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas) at various sites across the UK are going ahead, and government funds have been redirected from renewable energy to fracking. Supporters highlight the importance of the UK becoming more energy self-sufficient, while critics have raised concerns over health issues and the detrimental impact on the environment.
  • Nuclear energy remains a hot topic. The planned development of a nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point, Somerset has been marred with delays and increasing cost estimates, with one estimating the project will cost consumers £50 billion. But EDF Energy remains confident; on 28 July 2016 the company's board approved the project, and on 15 September 2016 the UK government also gave the green light, adding some safeguards for the investment. With several emerging plans to develop further sites, nuclear energy is set to remain a sensitive issue. Law firms are currently helping companies to negotiate the minefield of regulations as they prepare applications for nuclear development opportunities.
  • The government has attempted to reverse many policies previously introduced to reduce carbon emissions. For example, in July 2015 it was announced that from 2017 the current system of discounting or waiving vehicle excise duty (VED) for greener vehicles will end, although more expensive and polluting cars, such as luxury SUVs, will still pay a premium rate. However, in November 2016 ministers were taken to court by environmental group ClientEarth over failures to tackle the country's air pollution, which was reported – by the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Paediatrics and Child Health – to be linked to 40,000 premature deaths a year. In response, the government has rolled out plans to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2040. 
  • The government also planned to scrap a decade-long plan to force all new homes to be 'zero carbon' from 2018, drawing criticism from house builders, planners and environmentalists. The House of Lords has blocked the decision, so the government has been forced to go back to the drawing board on this one.
  • Most dramatically, the government ended the Renewables Obligation subsidy for small-scale solar panels and onshore wind farms a year earlier than planned in 2016. There is a grace period allowing projects which already have planning permission to receive funding, but businesses which had more long-term plans involving the subsidies will not and may be considering legal action.
  • A full Brexit would inevitably result in a loss of influence over EU environmental policy for the UK, but the potential domestic effect is more 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 could therefore reduce the incentives for the UK to maintain its current level of environmental regulation – especially in the event of any economic downturn – though this in turn is likely to depend on the trade deal the UK strikes with the EU. 
  • A coalition of leading UK and international campaign groups (including Greenpeace, WWF and the National Trust) have constructed a manifesto demanding that the government continues to co-operate 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. 
  • Keep on top of changes in environmental law using websites like www.endsreport.com. You should 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.