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The basics
Study abroad : Subject Guides

Subject focus: Why study environmental law?

Always wanted to learn more about the laws governing the environment? Check out our comprehensive subject guide here.

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Do you catch yourself paying extra attention during natural geography class? Are you passionate about protecting the environment? Want to stop global conglomerates from polluting the rivers with their toxic waste? A career as an environmental lawyer might just be for you.


What is environmental law?

Environmental law is the broad area of law that examines a range of issues related to the environment; this includes water, hazardous waste, air quality, species protection, wetlands, biodiversity, agriculture, green initiatives, waste managements, sustainability strategies and alternative energy sources. It also looks at the regulation and usage of our natural resources. Did you know that there are laws in place worldwide and locally that regulate things such as noise levels to chemical discharges and remediation? Issues such as pollutants and their containment, transport, and clean-up make up a large number of cases that you will be dealing with. What’s more, the usage of fossil fuels such as oil and gas is also highly regulated and falls under the purview of an environmental lawyer.



What routes are there into environmental law?

Depending on the country that you choose to study in, the programmes on offer will differ. In most countries, such as in Singapore, UK and many others, law degrees are given out in the form of an LLB (Bachelor of Laws) and students will go on to take the national Bar or Law Society qualifying examinations in order to be able to practice as a lawyer. Sometimes a BA in Law (BL) or a BSc in Law is awarded instead. Bear in mind that some universities choose to differentiate between LLB and BA programmes, the former focuses exclusively on law while the latter allows students to take modules in other subjects. Graduate law degrees will have a greater focus on academic research and they are referred to as a PhD in Law, (JSD) Doctor or Juridical Science or Doctor of Laws. 


A JD (Juris Doctor) is offered in places such as the US, Japan, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. In these countries, you will need to have a bachelor’s degree in a different discipline and then proceed to take up legal studies at the graduate level. A JD lasts three years. Students are also presented with the option of earning a Master of Laws (LLM) in a chosen area of specialisation after completing their JD. For lawyers who don’t possess a JD, they can study an LLM which will enable them to practice in countries that require a JD. Prospective students who intend to study in the US will need to take the LSATs (Law School Admission Test) in order to gain admission into American law programmes.


What to expect from law degrees

Like most academic degrees, law programs start with compulsory core courses, and more opportunities to choose law topics tailored to a particular career path later on. Teaching is conducted through a combination of lectures, seminars, group work, presentations, class debates and ‘mooting sessions’ – practical law training in a courtroom setting to help students master important legal skills such as research and analysis, public speaking and argument formation.


Some may also provide students with the chance to work pro bono (voluntarily) with real-life clients, as a way to gain invaluable experience and gaining legal skills that will help when applying for positions later on.


Environmental law is typically offered at the postgraduate level as a LLM. A master’s degree takes between one to two years to complete. There will be written assignments, an independent research essay and presentations throughout your course. Most universities today allow students to take their master’s programme over the course of a few years while working (up to a maximum of five years). Some universities offer a LLM in environmental law alongside their JD programme as a dual-degree option. Applicants must qualify for law school and meet the minimum score of their Law School Admission Test (LSAT).


Entry requirements

Most students who are intent on becoming an environmental lawyer usually take a bachelor’s degree in law or a related subject. Many institutions today allow students who don’t have a background in law to take a master’s in law. In these cases, students will be taught basic law modules so that they can catch up to their fellow students. To practice as a lawyer, you will need to pass the bar exam in the country that you want to work in. It is imperative that you look at the requirements specific to the country that you’ll be working in and enrol in an accredited school, a school that is recognised by that country.


Some students may even start out from an environmental science degree- majoring in biology or chemistry and then moving on to law school. 


Modules covered in an environmental law degree

  • Biodiversity and international law
  • Energy law
  • Environmental governance and regulation
  • Economic analysis of law
  • Law and policy of climate change
  • International investment law
  • International law of the sea
  • International law of transboundary pollution
  • International law of treaties
  • Maritime law
  • Sustainability development
  • Rights, humans and other animals
  • Law, development and the international community



Placement opportunities

Most, if not all universities today offer plenty of internship and placement opportunities for their students. Several have strong ties to the industry and students can work with those partners. For instance, the University of California, Berkeley, has a Centre for Law, Energy and the Environment where students can research into key issues that plague the environment and come up with creative policy solutions. Students can also become writers or editors and contribute to the school’s environmental law journal- The Ecology Law Quarterly.


Alternatively, you could also opt to seek independent internships on your own. To find out more information regarding the kinds of internship programmes that universities or college have, we suggest that you contact them directly. We highly recommend that students to complete at least one internship or placement before graduation to better your employment chances in a highly competitive job market. Internships and placements not only provide you with invaluable job experience, they also are the perfect platform to network with industry experts. Who knows, your internship might turn into a full-time job once you graduate!


What careers can you do in environmental law?

With globalisation only increasing in speed, sustainability is now a big priority for countries worldwide. It’s an issue that affects both the public and private sector. Lawyers who have the ability to counsel clients on the latest green standards and sustainability issues are in demand. Climate change, global warming and other environmental legislation will cause a corresponding increase in legal work for environmental lawyers in the near future.


What can you do as an environmental lawyer? You can choose to work in multinational corporations, private businesses, government agencies and of course practice in a law firm. Your expertise is needed in many areas, from ensuring compliance to existing laws to working to write new ones when necessary. Graduates can help on Environmental Impact Assessments, testify on behalf of the public against a corporation, help businesses find new ways to conduct their desired trades, work to help raise or lower government standards on accepted pollutants or toxins.


As mentioned earlier, you can also work in the oil and gas industry where there is a strong demand for environmental lawyers.  You can specialise in issues such as habitat remediation, land utilisation, water usage and protection and toxicity levels and pollutants.


Graduates can also choose to work in academia, in this case an LLM or Doctor of Philosophy is needed. On the other hand, if you love writing, you can go the opposite direction become an environmental journalist, melding your two passions. Many writing positions today require technical knowledge regarding the issues that are being written.


A day in the life of an environmental lawyer

Depending on where you choose to work, your day-to-day activities can include meeting with clients, researching environmental legal developments, drafting documents and even educating the public and students about environmental law. You could also be helping your client file land leases, defending the public against a company that is dumping waste into an abandoned parcel of land that is causing damage to the environment. Every day will be something different, you won’t have time to feel bored.


How much does an environmental lawyer earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers earned an average of $131,990 on average in 2013. Of course, depending on the sector that you choose to work in, your salary might be higher or lower than this average.


Skills required to be an environmental lawyer

In order to succeed as an environmental lawyer, you will need these skills:

  • Strong research skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Teamwork
  • Presentation skills
  • Communication skills


To find out more about the field of environmental law, visit these websites- The Environmental Law Institute (ELI), The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Centre for International Environmental Law.


Best places to study environmental law

These are some of the countries that have strong environmental law programmes:


University of Melbourne

University of Sydney

University of New South Wales (UNSW)

Australian National University (ANU)



Harvard University

Yale University

New York University (NYU)

Stanford University



University of Oxford

London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

University College London (UCL)

King’s College London


The Netherlands

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Maastricht University


We hope this has shed some light on the fulfilling field of environmental law and spurred you to pursue that degree!


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