Environmental Law Professional: Overview of Educational Programs

Environmental law is generally a specialty within the law field focused on protecting plants and wildlife. Continue reading for an overview of the degrees, as well as career and salary info for some career options for graduates.

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Students interested in becoming environmental lawyers can specialize in this field by taking courses in topics like land use and energy laws once they enter their second year of law school. After earning their JD, they also have the option of pursuing a Master of Laws degree to specialize in environmental law. At some point, prospective environmental lawyers will need to pass their state's bar exam before becoming licensed to practice.

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Environmental Law Degree Overview

A career in environmental law is based on an understanding of the protection of endangered animals and plants, laws that govern natural resources and principles of sustainability. Nowadays, companies are prosecuted for violating environmental laws concerning waste treatment, hazardous waste deposits and abuse of natural resources. Lawyers of this type specialize in interpreting and enforcing environmental laws.

Career Environmental Lawyer
Required Education A Master of Laws or Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree
Other Requirements Must pass the bar exam for their state
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 6% for all lawyers
Average Salary (2015)* $136,260 for all lawyers

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Juris Doctor Degree

Before becoming an environmental lawyer, one must earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. The J.D. is awarded to law school graduates and typically takes three years of full-time enrollment to earn. The first year of law school is often dedicated to creating a foundation of legal knowledge. Students take courses that address legal reasoning and research, contracts, torts, property law and rules of the legal system.

During the second and third years of law school, students are generally free to take any other law courses that interest them or seem pertinent to their career interests. The only specific requirement during these years is often an ethics course. Additionally, some law schools require students to complete an internship or pro-bono legal work (services for the public good).

Environmental Law Specialization

After completing one year of law school, aspiring environmental lawyers can take courses that relate to their desired career path. Such courses might cover topics like:

  • International environmental law
  • Land use laws
  • Energy laws
  • Conservation laws
  • The Clean Air Act
  • Oceans and coasts laws
  • Water resources
  • Toxins

J.D. candidates must take a certain number of environmental law courses in order to be eligible to receive the environmental law specialization or certificate. The number of courses varies by school, but this can typically be completed within the average 3-year law school matriculation.

Master of Laws Degree

The LL.M. or Master of Laws degree is an option for those who wish to focus on environmental law but have already completed a traditional J.D. program. Working lawyers might take LL.M. courses after work, or recent law school graduates might enroll in order to attain the environmental law specialization. Earning an LL.M. degree typically takes 1-5 years, depending on the rate at which courses are taken. Students might specialize in areas like environmental justice or conservation of biodiversity.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there were 778,700 lawyers employed in the U.S. in 2014. Employment opportunities for all lawyers are expected to increase by 6% between 2014 and 2024, according to the BLS, which is an increase of 43,800 jobs. The BLS' salary data from 2015 shows an average annual income of $136,260 for lawyers.

A career in environmental law requires several years of postsecondary study, including three years of law school, during which time students can establish an environmental law focus. Continuing education is available through a Master of Laws program, where students can also specialize in environmental law. Environmental lawyers need to be familiar with the laws regarding natural resources and the protection of endangered species in order to prosecute companies that break them.

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