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What Does It Mean to Work as an Environmental Law Attorney?

published January 04, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

( 721 votes, average: 4 out of 5)

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Today's children grow up with a keen awareness of environmental issues. Grade school children participate in community efforts to clean up creeks and rivers and spend class time studying the causes of global warming. Preschoolers, coached by sophisticated teachers as well as a certain purple dinosaur, remind family members to recycle. The parents of these savvy kids—whose own childhood knowledge of environmental issues may have been limited to planting a tree in the schoolyard on Arbor Day—find themselves facing an ever-increasing array of environmental challenges in the workplace. Whether employed in real estate, manufacturing, construction, banking, or health care, they grapple with environmental issues, many of which touch upon the law.

What is Environmental Law?


Environmental law is a relatively new legal specialty. Since the 1970s— often referred to as "the environmental decade"—the U.S. Congress has passed a number of major environmental statutes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies have adopted hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations under those statutes. State and local governments have also enacted regulations in response to environmental concerns. Thus a vast range of environmental issues intersects with the law—from the generation and disposal of hazardous waste to the transfer of property that may be contaminated to the protection of land, water, and air from future contamination.


Environmental Permitting


When entities build, expand, or transfer (through sale of real estate) any industrial property, they must consider federal, state, and local environmental laws. Federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act, as well as state and local laws, come into play. A major part of this practice involves "permitting"—obtaining the proper federal, state, and local permits and operating licenses.


When a new facility, such as a chemical plant or an auto manufacturing plant, is constructed, the operating entity needs to obtain air permits, water permits, solid and hazardous waste permits, and other permits and operating licenses to ensure that the facility will meet environmental standards. The procedures for obtaining these permits and operating licenses can be extremely complex. Environmental attorneys help guide business entities through this complicated process of obtaining the necessary permits and licenses from regulatory agencies.


A business, a community group, or a municipality can challenge the issuance of a permit if, for example, they believe a regulatory agency has issued a permit that fails to adequately protect the environment, or if they believe the permit violates the agency's own regulations. These challenges result in an administrative hearing.


As environmental laws change and become increasingly restrictive, businesses must comply with the changed regulations. This may involve upgrading their facilities or even changing the design of their products. For example, a neighborhood gas station may have to upgrade its storage tanks to comply with federal, state, or local regulations. Federal regulations require automobile manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors to produce vehicles producing fewer emissions. Attorneys guide businesses in developing plans to comply with these laws.


Superfund and Brownfields Practice


To fight the problem of hazardous waste, Congress passed the Superfund Program (The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, as amended in 1986). Superfund allows the federal government and private parties to bring cost recovery actions for the cleanup of chemical contamination to property. Such cleanups may cost millions of dollars. Superfund litigation generally involves numerous parties, including those who deposited the chemicals and prior owners of the property, seeking to apportion the high cost of cleaning up this toxic waste.


There are many industrial sites that are contaminated, but not heavily contaminated. The EPA defines these sites as "brownfields." According to the EPA, brownfields are "abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination." These sites are often in low-income areas and contribute to urban blight. Potential buyers and redevelopers of the sites fear an unknown amount of liability due to cleaning up hazardous waste. Brownfields programs have been developed at the federal, state, and local level to clean up these sites and make them available for purchase by private industry. The Clinton administration developed the Brownfields Redevelopment Initiative, designed to spur cleanup and redevelopment of thousands of brownfields sites around the U.S.


Real Estate Transactions


Many manufacturing plants are located in areas with high concentrations of industry, but commercial redevelopment and movement toward a service economy and lighter industrial processes are causing this to change. Old industrial sites, such as steel mills and petrochemical plants, may be converted into offices, shops, and entertainment facilities, or they may be converted to light industrial facilities, such as package distribution centers. When these properties are sold, the buyers and sellers are often required to negotiate each party's responsibility for any potential liability for environmental hazards related to the property. For this reason, most of today's commercial real estate transactions involve environmental assessments or environmental audits. This means that a professional person reviews the real estate as well as the state of environmental compliance of the business being sold. Environmental lawyers then evaluate the results of the audit and assess the legal risks and liabilities related to the transaction. Environmental lawyers advise their clients on how to structure the real estate deals to minimize environmental liability.


Life as an Environmental Lawyer


Where do environmental lawyers work?


Environmental lawyers work in many different settings. Those employed by the government work to enforce environmental law statutes and develop and enforce regulations, whether at the federal, state, or local level. In law firms, environmental attorneys represent the corporations and industries subject to environmental regulations. In corporations, in-house attorneys advise their employers concerning compliance with environmental laws. Some environmental lawyers work for public interest organizations, assisting residents and community groups with the environmental problems that may plague low-income areas. Others work for environmental advocacy organizations.


Who are their clients and what types of cases do they work on?


Environmental attorneys who work in law firms generally represent corporate clients. Bruno Bataglia, formerly of Hannoch Weisman in Roseland, New Jersey, explains, "My practice involves large corporate clients, most of which are Fortune 500 companies. At least 90% of my clients are from outside of New Jersey, most in the Midwest or along the Atlantic Coast." He adds, "These corporations are either suing or being sued for environmental contamination, or they may be pursuing their insurance carriers for coverage of those environmental costs. The damages are frequently in the tens of millions of dollars."


Shad Williams is an environmental attorney at Dykema Gossett PLLC in Detroit, Michigan. Shad has worked with corporate clients from a wide variety of industries—oil and gas, waste management, retailing, auto parts, and other manufacturing industries. He represents clients in environmental litigation. A typical case might involve a leaking underground storage tank that has contaminated surrounding soil and ground water. Sometimes the cases involve contamination that happened years previously, resulting in the interesting, but arduous, task of investigating events that occurred as long as 50 years ago.


Santos Garcia works as Associate Regional Counsel for the Environmental Protection Agency regional office in Chicago, Illinois. "My clients," he explains, "are the various program offices in the EPA that are charged with enforcing environmental laws. For example, an engineer who works for the EPA who inspects a plant and finds evidence of violations of the Clean Air Act would refer that case to our office. I work on cases involving civil enforcement of federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, and others."


Alex Holmes, an attorney for the Office of General Counsel of the U.S. EPA in Washington, D.C., works on the regulatory side of environmental law. He advises EPA headquarters and regional program staff who are assigned to regulatory rule-making projects. He writes notices that justify the regulations the EPA adopts. When the EPA is sued by state agencies, environmental groups, or industry, he works with Department of Justice attorneys to defend or settle the litigation. This litigation arises when petitioners allege that a part of a federal statute or regulation is not stringent enough, is overburdensome, or is otherwise illegal.


"The issues I work on are of a national scope," says Mike. "They can be abstract and are rarely of local or specific immediate consequence. We almost never save single places from destruction here in Washington, but we do set up the rules so that regional and state agencies can."


Some Environmental attorneys work for non-profit organizations. Stacey Whitebread is an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental advocacy group. Vickie works in Boulder, Colorado, at one of the group's five regional offices, and her clients are the members of EDF. She works on air quality and climate change issues, especially those affecting the western United States. "The issues I work on may range from intense local controversies to international policies. There may be an issue that affects air quality in Boulder, or there may be an issue that affects a multinational protocol to address reduction of greenhouse gases. Most of my work involves broader policy issues. I spend a considerable amount of time advocating for EPA and state agencies to adopt sound environmental policies."


A limited number of environmental law attorneys work in the public interest sector. Art DeNovo is the Director of the Environmental Law Program of the Chicago Legal Clinic (CLC). "As an attorney at CLC, my clients are people who cannot otherwise find or afford an attorney. I assist individuals and community groups who are facing urban environmental problems." Artworks on the remarkably wide range of environmental issues that affect residents of low-income areas. Most issues are related to "living space," such as use of lead-based paint, indiscriminate use of indoor pesticides, and improper demolition and renovation activities. Other issues, such as nuisance conditions and brownfields issues, concern the larger community.


What daily activities are involved in environmental law practice?


Those environmental attorneys at firms report dividing their time between meetings, telephone conferences, and drafting written materials. Explains Bruno Bataglia, "On a typical day, telephone calls and conferences consume one-third of my time, meetings another third, and preparation and review of written materials the last third." An experienced veteran with over 14 years of experience, he reports that he is seldom in the library. Shad Williams reports that his environmental litigation practice requires him to spend about 20% of a typical month out of the office—taking depositions, arguing motions, or attending the occasional trial. His in-office time "is spent heavily on the telephone with clients, in drafting agreements and litigation documents, and in holding internal meetings."


Santos Garcia reports that his role as a Regional Counsel for the EPA requires that he spend a great deal of time in conferences or on phone calls with opposing counsel. "I spend a good deal of my time negotiating settlements. It's an important part of the job," he says. "Most environmental cases tend to settle. I've only tried one federal case in the last six years—the others have settled." Ignacio also conducts internal training sessions for new EPA attorneys.


Alex Holmes, who works on the regulatory side of the EPA, reports that he spends much of his time writing. He writes Federal Register Preamble Notices that justify the regulations adopted by the EPA, as well as writing briefs and drafting written responses to congressional inquiries. He reviews and edits the written work of staff at other EPA offices. He also drafts what are called "guidance documents," which discuss how the EPA will implement a particular program. Alex adds that he spends "endless" hours on the phone, whether engaged in settlement negotiations, advising staff at other EPA offices, or providing program clients with legal and policy advice.


In her work for the Environmental Defense Fund, Stacey Whitebread participates in a wide variety of activities. "This job involves rolling up your sleeves and doing all kinds of things. I do the nuts and bolts things such as legal research and writing. But I also meet with and advocate before senior officials in state and federal government. I engage in both written and oral advocacy. I litigate. I work on press and public outreach strategies to engender public support for important environmental issues. I meet with representatives of other environmental organizations to strategize about how we can work together to shape policy. I also have fundraising responsibilities. I do my share of traditional legal work, but it is balanced by advocacy work and work outside the office."


Art DeNovo explains that as an environmental public interest lawyer, "I spend most of my time talking to people confronting problems and helping them devise strategies for dealing with those problems. That sometimes involves legal action, but more often involves implementing change in non-traditional ways." He notes that facilitating change requires going beyond traditional lawyering. "I do a lot of community education. I write manuals and newsletters. I look for ways to educate our target population. If people understand their rights, they can exercise them without resorting to the legal system."


What do environmental lawyers find rewarding about their practice?


Whether working for law firms, the government, or non-profit organizations, the environmental lawyers we talked to report that their greatest satisfaction comes from proactively solving environmental problems. Santos Garcia explains, "It's satisfying to negotiate cleanup settlements. When a company that's responsible for hazardous waste comes to an agreement with us, and bears the costs of cleanup—that's rewarding. For example, in 1997 we negotiated with Union Carbide to provide $50 million to clean up a hazardous waste site in southern Ohio. It's a good feeling to know that a large environmental problem is actually being addressed."


Bruno Bataglia, who is in private practice, finds it rewarding to "negotiate a fair resolution of these matters in a way both favorable to the clients and timely enough to allow for the prompt remediation of the environmental problem at issue."


Art DeNovo explains that, though working to solve the problems is rewarding, so is working with the people who work to solve the problems. "One of the very best parts of the job is working with good people. I live in this network of people in business, government agencies, and community groups, and they have a common goal—solving problems. These are people I respect very much. They have all points of view, yet they come together with creative solutions. One of the best people I work with works with a local landfill company. I also work with 60 volunteer attorneys, as well as with law students who work on our projects. I tend to see the very best side of the legal profession."


The attorneys we talked to were enthusiastic about their clients and colleagues. Shad Williams reports that interacting with people is one of his favorite parts of the job. "I like the clients I work with," he says. "They are decent, honest, and capable." Alex Holmes claims that there are no better people to work with than his colleagues at the EPA. "They are the best as far as human beings are concerned. They aren't out to make a quick buck. There's no competition and no backstabbing. There's tremendous collegiality."


The attorneys we talked to also mentioned the intellectual challenge of their work. Stacey Whitebread says, "It's challenging to influence decision-makers. When you are successful, you've convinced someone to take into account some environmental consideration or viewpoint that they weren't otherwise considering. And best of all, this ultimately makes a difference in the environment."


Alex Holmes enjoys the academic challenge of his work at the EPA. "Intellectually, it's a pretty cool job. I handle issues of first impression under the Clean Air Act. This is heady stuff. It's neat to see the broader philosophical legal issues that exist beyond the technical standards at hand. I have the opportunity to actually influence national environmental policy."

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The Training and Skills Important to Environmental Law


How do people enter the field of environmental law?


Many of the attorneys who enter environmental law report that they've been interested in environmental issues for as long as they can remember. Explains Art DeNovo, "I've always had an interest in environmental issues. All of these issues have been unfolding during my lifetime. I even remember participating in the first Earth Day when I was a kid." Alex Holmes reports, "I grew up in California, watching the destruction of paradise. Once-beautiful towns turned into pavement because of no planning, no zoning, and no control. I knew at an early age that I wanted to get into the environmental field somehow."


Stacey Whitebread had a similar experience. "I had a long-standing interest in environmental issues. I grew up in the southwest, where you could see the stresses of rapid growth take their toll on the environment." Santos Garcia adds that his interest in the outdoors was his primary motivating factor to pursuing a career in environmental law. "I'm into rock climbing, and it takes you to all kinds of really neat places. Seeing those places heightens your appreciation and concern for the environment."


Summer employment during law school often tends to pique student interest in environmental law. Santos Garcia clerked at the EPA in Chicago following his first year of law school. This summer job ultimately led to his attorney job at the EPA. "Clerking is a common way into the EPA," he explains, noting that he still sees the people he worked for during that first summer at the EPA. Alex Holmes worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council for two summers during law school. He, too, was hired by the EPA directly out of law school, but he notes that the EPA now hires a number of experienced attorneys who have worked at law firms and for environmental groups.


Other attorneys report that they entered the environmental law field through opportunities that came to them once they began practicing. "Although I took the only environmental law class offered in my law school, it was merely fortuitous that my firm was just beginning to expand its practice into the environmental area when I joined in 1984," says Bruno Bataglia. "Since then, I've had the opportunity to develop an environmental practice that is a mix of litigation and counseling." Shad Williams reports that he started as a tax lawyer; he then developed a business and litigation practice. Then, he says, "Several years ago I decided the environmental area presented an opportunity for interesting and challenging work, while the business practice was suffering from a deep recession. During the 1980s, when the environmental law field was assuming greater and greater importance, my practice began to tip more in that direction."


What skills are most important to environmental lawyers?

  • Environmental law attorneys need to have creative problem-solving skills. Alex Holmes comments, "Problem-solving skills are the most critical talent in environmental law. They are what your clients turn to you for and what they are most disappointed and disbelieving about when you fail." "I constantly push myself to think creatively to solve problems. My clients want a solution, not a lawsuit," says Art DeNovo. One of the most rewarding issues Art remembers working on was solving the problem of the Chicago Housing Authority's (CHA's) use of lead-based paint in public housing. "The case started with a single lead-poisoned child," he says. "It resulted in a complete overhaul of how the Chicago Housing Authority handles the problem. The CHA progressed from handling the problem worse than any other organization in the country to handling it better than any other organization in the country. We had people—law firm attorneys, CHA representatives, mediators, residents—who came together with goodwill to solve a problem."
  • Writing skills are important to environmental lawyers. "They're paramount," asserts Bruno Bataglia. He adds that "a well organized and concise written work product" is invaluable to the practitioner and notes that he spends about one-third of his day drafting and editing written work. The writing skills required often go beyond legal writing: Art DeNovo uses his writing skills to draft newsletters and manuals that will be meaningful to community groups and to clients who may not have a great deal of formal education.
  • An interest in and understanding of science are helpful to environmental lawyers. Stacey Whitebread, who came to the field with an undergraduate degree in hydrology, says "You need to understand the science and understand the law." However, says Bruno Bataglia, "There's some misconception that a strong engineering or science background is a prerequisite to succeeding in this area. Although it's helpful, it's not necessary." Santos Garcia adds, "Knowledge of science helps, but if you have natural curiosity, an ability to focus, and a good eye for detail, you can learn enough science to get along. Most of the attorneys in our EPA office have a liberal arts education. We focus on lawyering and we leave the science to our engineers." Alex Holmes agrees. "It's not necessary to have much of an understanding of science," he says, "especially if you work for scientifically competent and reasonably articulate clients."
  • A willingness to learn new things is also important to the field, since environmental law is so complex and changes constantly. "You have to be able to spot lurking issues or issues that haven't been raised," says Alex Holmes.
  • The lawyers we talked to also emphasized the critical nature of negotiation and oral advocacy skills. Stacey Whitebread says that at the EDF she must often persuade a decision-maker to see things from her point of view. "You must present the most cogent and persuasive argument you can in a limited amount of time," she says. Alex Holmes's EPA job in Washington, D.C., requires him to constant exercise his oral advocacy skills. "You have to jump into the snakepit of argument," he says. "In D.C. people are outspoken and opinionated. You must keep your cool. Because you're representing the government, you must maintain an unemotional, objective demeanor. It's a challenge," he adds.
  • All of the attorneys we interviewed agreed that interpersonal skills are of primary importance to environmental lawyers. Shad Williams explains that when you work in a law firm, "You must be sensitive to clients as people and deal with them in a way that is satisfactory to them. You must understand people to negotiate with them. People skills provide the foundation for persuasion, and as lawyers, we are often called upon to persuade others to accept a point of view." Stacey Whitebread explains that to further the interests of the EDF, she must focus on forming coalitions with colleagues and decision-makers who have other interests. She notes that this requires good listening skills as well as an astute political ear. "You need to be aware of the politics of the situation and aware of where there are opportunities or lack of opportunities to make a difference," she says.
  • Environmental lawyers, particularly those who work in non-profit organizations, need an ability to communicate with and relate to different sectors of society. Art DeNovo explains that his advocacy work for the Chicago Legal Clinic requires him to work with diverse populations. "On the same day, I may attend a meeting in a church basement in a housing project and a meeting of corporate advisers in an elegant conference room in the Loop. Few people are comfortable moving between those different worlds." Art has a master's degree in social work, and it has served him well in working with community groups, as many of them are church-based. Stacey Whitebread has the opportunity to work firsthand with people adversely affected by environmental hazards. She recalls an EDF trip to Mexico during which she met with citizens to gain an understanding of the air quality problem at the El Paso border. "There was incredible pollution. I talked with the citizens about the air pollution problem and its effect on their lives. It was a very humbling experience."

What classes and law school experiences do environmental lawyers recommend?

  • Take your law school's environmental law survey course. If your law school offers additional environmental law classes, consider taking those as well. Get to know your school's environmental law professors. As Art DeNovo noted earlier, environmental law professors can introduce you to the vast array of opportunities in the environmental law field. These professors also know alumni who are working in the field. Professors and alumni can be valuable mentors for those students who are committed to an environmental law career.
  • Environmental lawyers strongly recommend taking an administrative law course in preparation for dealing with the numerous regulatory agencies involved in this field. "Administrative law is a class that is at least as important as environmental law," explains Ignacio. Attorneys also recommend that students take courses in corporations, federal courts, torts, and evidence.
  • Attorneys also recommend courses that will sharpen your litigation and oral advocacy skills, such as trial advocacy and appellate practice. Participating in your school's moot court program is one of the best ways to develop your ability to think on your feet, both inside and outside the courtroom. But in the end, says Alex Holmes, "the best training is to force yourself to actively and orally participate in discussions and argument of any kind—whether it's in large lecture classes, small seminars, or study groups. As Mr. Jordan says in the Nike ads, don't be afraid to lose—failure is critical to learning how to win. You must learn to listen and to argue, and argue a lot, and then to listen again, and hang fire, and then make your point quickly and clearly and demonstrably."
  • Pursue a judicial clerkship during your second year of law school. A judicial clerkship provides you with the opportunity to work for a federal judge upon graduation from law school. Bruno Bataglia says, "I found my clerkship experience to be invaluable when entering private practice." Adds Alex Holmes, "Although I never clerked myself, there seems to be no better training for litigation. Working with a judge helps you assess legal risk. And at the EPA, a judicial clerkship allows you to start your job at a higher grade—and thus a higher rate of pay—than those graduates who haven't done judicial clerkships."
  • If possible, take advantage of your law school's judicial externship program. These programs allow students to work as "junior" law clerks for federal judges while in law school. Students generally receive several hours of credit for their work.
  • Acquire clinical and/or externship experience during law school. If your law school has a clinical program that allows you to work on environmental law issues, become involved. "An externship with the U.S. Attorney's office, specifically its environmental task force, would be very valuable," explains Bruno Bataglia. Alex Holmes recommends "any administrative agency experience, even if it's not environmental. It will help you understand regulatory issues." Consider clerking for a law firm or organization that does environmental work. Part-time work provides you with a more balanced law school life and widens the circle of people you know in the environmental law field. Stacey Whitebread worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and for EDF while in law school and reports that she is still in contact with many of her former colleagues.
  • Do volunteer work related to environmental issues. "Volunteer with grassroots groups or with national environmental groups. Student organizations on campus can also be very valuable," Alex Holmes advises. "Most law students don't get as lucky as I did and land summer or school-year jobs with major national environmental groups. But that need not put anyone behind, since there are needy grassroots organizations everywhere that want and appreciate any help they can get. They, in turn, can provide you with real life experience and can reaffirm the validity of your career choice." This is particularly important if you're interested in a public interest career. "Public interest organizations look for people who show a demonstrated commitment to the public interest," Art DeNovo explains.
  • "You can demonstrate this commitment by showing a lifetime of trying to make your values work. When we hire we look for whether someone has an aptitude for public interest work. Be able to show that you've worked in a number of different public interest settings and that you've had success working for those organizations."
  • Recognize the rewards and challenges of public interest work. If you're considering a public interest career, be aware that you're entering a sector with more competition for jobs and a lower rate of pay than the private sector. "There are very few jobs in the public interest sector and they are incredibly difficult to get," says Art DeNovo. He adds that it's important to "solve the money question." Even after years of practice, public interest work attorneys generally find their salaries lag significantly behind those of attorneys in government and private practice. "You have to somehow make sense of that," explains Keith, who in addition to his public interest work teaches as an adjunct professor at a Chicago law school. "Even though I have 10 years of experience, I make half as much as my former students completing their first year of private practice."
  • Join student groups dedicated to environmental issues. Explains Stacey Whitebread, "It's always helpful to spend time with students with similar interests to keep your focus. If you really want to pursue environmental law, it helps to have support from other students." Santos Garcia says that he joined student environmental organizations in college and in law school. "I helped form a student environmental organization when I was an undergrad at Tulane," he says. "I did everything from organizing protests to distributing information about how to recycle to selling t-shirts." He adds that he also helped establish an environmental student group at his law school.
  • Become part of the environmental law community by joining national, state, and local bar associations. The American Bar Association has a section on Environment, Energy, and Resources, for example. Bar associations often make student memberships available at discounted rates. In addition, consider joining or volunteering for national environmental organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, or the Environmental Defense Fund.
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