In a nutshell


Environment attorneys advise companies on federal, state and local laws and regulations relating to public health, welfare and the environment. The type of conduct that is regulated includes industrial activity, the development of natural resources, the use of land and everyday activities like driving a car. BigLaw attorneys primarily defend companies that are subject to these laws and regulations.

The laws attorneys work with will depend on the environmental medium: for example, air, water, waste and natural/cultural/historical resources (this touches on historical preservation, land use and endangered species) all have their own statutes and programs. The Clean Air Act “one of the most complex pieces of legislation on the books,” according to Hunton & Williams partner Bill Brownell – is one example.

The types of proceedings handled by environmental lawyers are also varied. Administrative agency work involves dealing with agencies. In federal government, that includes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Department of Agriculture (DOA), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Legislative work involves working with Congress and advising companies on federal legislation and lobbying.

What environmental lawyers do


  • “I tell students that the practice of environmental law touches on everything a lawyer can do. An environmental lawyer will practice before Congress, administrative agencies, federal and state courts, and international tribunals and organizations. The practice of environmental law also involves politically controversial subjects that one reads about in the papers every day,” says Hunton's Brownell
  • “When a statute or law is changed it initiates a process that can last for years, from lobbying legislators, to working with agencies that develop rules, to challenging or defending those rules in court, to seeking permits and licenses under those rules, to defending clients in enforcement proceedings,” he adds.

Realities of the job


  • The laws and regulations have become increasingly complicated over the years. Thus, much of what environmental lawyers do on a daily basis is to “make sure that clients understand all the rules to which they are subject and work with them to ensure they are complying with those rules,” says Hunton & Williams partner Andrea Field.
  • “Often, the first time a client realizes that there’s a problem is when the EPA starts an enforcement action, charging the client with breaking federal law." Because the laws are often unclear, “it is the attorney’s job to determine if legitimate arguments can be made that, in fact, the client has not violated the law. And if there are violations, then it is the lawyer’s job to negotiate a reasonable – and, if possible, nonpunitive – way for the client to come into compliance.”
  • This field of law is “constantly changing,” according to Field. “International tribunals, Congress and state legislatures enact complicated laws. That prompts regulators to adopt complicated rules and issue guidance to implement the laws.” And then there are the advocacy groups, which can “file lawsuits and do other things to try to push regulators into taking (or not taking) additional actions.” Staying abreast of all such changes “necessarily keeps practitioners on their toes.”
  • The legislation is sometimes politically motivated, so environmental lawyers can end up wading into controversies among different branches of government. “And just as you start getting a handle on a program, there is a national or state election, and that ushers in new legislators and new regulators, which restarts the cycle of change,” says Field. But the changing players and changing requirements make things interesting. “As an environmental lawyer, I not only deal with nuts-and-bolts factual and legal issues, but I also get to argue important issues of administrative and constitutional law.”
  • “Practicing environmental law requires an aptitude for sophisticated legal analysis, an aptitude for simplifying complex issues, and an ability for written and oral advocacy,” Bill Brownell says. Andrea Field adds: “And just like full-time litigators, you have to roll up your sleeves and become fully familiar with the facts in your cases. Tempting as it may be to delegate doc review to others, you have to stay involved because you have to know the facts.” A lot of reading case law and doc review can be involved. And there can be a lot of documents.

Current issues


  • The political debate over climate change has led to increasingly complex legislative proposals and regulation. “Climate change is an evolving issue and will continue to create major uncertainties for business planning,” Bill Brownell says.
  • “Economics can have a large effect on how you handle specific environmental matters. A client may start off wanting to litigate every conceivable issue in an enforcement case, but the cost of doing that – and the animosity that can create in dealing with regulators with whom the client might need to do business – usually prompts clients to try to find a reasonable middle ground to resolve cases,” Andrea Field says. A down economy is therefore likely to lead to more cases settling out of court in this area.
  • There’s an increase in the use of citizen suits and permitting challenges.
  • The implementation of a carbon credit system is being debated, which will have widespread repercussions for the practice of environmental law.

What top environment lawyers say


Andrea Field, partner and managing partner of the Washington, DC office at Hunton & Williams

“If you’re the type of person who likes to think creatively and who likes knowing everything about some esoteric legal issue, then you’ll like environmental law.”

“Many law schools now offer excellent courses in environmental law – some of which discuss the cases on which my colleagues and I have been working for years. And it is also helpful for those interested in environmental law to take courses in administrative law, federal courts and procedures, and constitutional law.”