Canada: So You Want To Be An Environmental Lawyer…

Last Updated: April 18 2013
Article by Meredith James and Dianne Saxe

At least once a month, a lawyer or law student asks us for help getting into environmental law. Our reaction is bittersweet. On one hand, it is exciting and reassuring that so many talented young people want to devote their professional lives to environmental protection. On the other hand, there are far fewer jobs in our field than there are people who want those jobs. And it has always been so.

Our earlier blog post on how not to get an articling position was very popular. We thought that as a follow up, we should provide some practical advice on what you can do to break into the field of environmental law.

But first...

Are you really sure you want environmental law?

In our experience, it's hardly ever like Erin Brockovich.

Environmental lawyers in private practice may not do what you think we do. We work with our clients to help them solve their particular legal problem.  Some need environmental approvals, or help to structure a transaction. Some are charged with an environmental offence, and need to get back into compliance as well as a defence in court. Some have problems with contaminated sites, want to sue or are being sued. Some have to report spills. Some just need to understand the environmental risks they already have. Most, but not all, clients are decent, likeable people, but few have done everything right.

While this work is satisfying, it is not what many law students imagine themselves doing. In particular, most of it is retail, one person's problem at a time, and few cases do much to change the world as a whole. The more exciting, "save the world" cases that students imagine must usually be done pro bono, and most of them don't succeed. And most individuals who want help with environmental problems, cannot afford to pay much for it. There is an infinite demand for unpaid work, but that's a very hard way to make a living.

Environmental groups and civil servants more often have the chance to do the cases you probably want to do. But environmental groups usually struggle with limited resources, and often feel they are beating their heads against a very hard wall. Civil servants can also face tight financial constraints, and must serve political masters with whom they may profoundly disagree. Still, the best place to learn is often in the public service, where the problems are the most important, and there are many wonderful lawyers and scientists to learn from. No wonder civil service jobs are so hard to get.

And now to the top three questions we receive...

Do I need a background in the sciences?

We think it really helps.

In our practice, it is essential to work well with engineers and scientists. For example, chemists tell us how contaminants break down in underground water. Hydrogeologists analyse ground water flow, to show where contamination comes from and where it is going. Sound engineers predict how much noise will reach a residential area, and what can be done about it. Geotechnical engineers study soil stability, to prevent sedimentation of nearby streams. Biologists help us restore native species in disturbed ecosystems.

We are constantly working with such experts to study, understand, explain and manage complex environmental issues. A background in the sciences can make it much easier to speak their language, and to understand their work, opinions and reports. If you don't have a science degree, consider extension courses.

How can I make connections with the environmental bar?

A great way to connect with the environmental bar is to become a part of it. Students and young lawyers can join the OBA's Environmental Law Section at a reduced rate. As a member, you'll receive event announcements, and the section newsletter, and can also attend workshops and presentations at a discount. These sessions offer an opportunity to learn more about the practical side of environmental law and how it is applied in the real world as well as make connections with practitioners.

You can also get to know the environmental bar by reading firm articles and newsletters, and following cases in the courts and tribunals. Following significant environmental decisions (which you are probably already doing if you read this blog) provides conversation starters as well as legal education.

Please remember that senior lawyers have limited time and do get a lot of requests for meetings.  When you write to someone you hope to meet with, be sincere, ask for something specific and limited, and include something that might be of interest to them. If you saw their presentation at a recent OBA event, or saw that they were counsel on a decision, why not research a relevant legal point and send them your memo? You can make a good impression if you find an intriguing article, case or line of argument that they did not already consider, perhaps by examining how the same issue is treated in other countries.

What else can I do to be a more competitive candidate?

Better candidates have good marks, good references, strong legal and presentation skills, coupled with a thoughtful understanding of environmental law and policy. You can build up a cv by:

  • Looking for every chance to build up legal skills. Participate in moots. Volunteer for legal aid. Write comments on proposals posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights. Speak at public meetings on matters of public interest. Help your neighbour take a small claims case to court. Volunteer to do legal research for duty counsel.
  • Volunteering with environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Dedicate yourself to thoroughly understanding an issue that they work on, and take every opportunity to help out. If you are lucky, they may let you help research or draft policy papers, write articles, sit on committees or work on public consultations;
  • Submitting good articles on environmental topics to academic journals and legal publications like Lawyers Weekly, or the Environmental Law Section's newsletter;
  • Getting involved with the environmental law students group at your school. (If there isn't one, start it!) As a group, you can take on bigger projects on behalf of ENGOs in your community. Consider approaching an ENGO and offering to undertake a law or policy related project on their behalf;
  • Joining the board of an ENGO. Many small organizations have difficulty attracting board members who have the time and energy required. This can be a great way to meet people in the environmental sector and to learn from those who have seen the sector go through some very big changes over the last 40 years.

And do study those who have the skills you want. If you want to be a litigator, spend as much time as you can in court. Make notes, analyse what you think works and why.

And if you don't find the job now, don't give up.

Even if you end up practicing in another area of law, or working in some other capacity, you will have opportunities to work for environmental protection. Lawyers in any practice area can bring strong analytical skills and an articulate voice, as well as financial support, to the environmental issues that affect their organization and their community. And sometimes, the job of your dreams will show up years later, if you keep the door open while you're building your skills.

Good luck to you all.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Meredith James
Dianne Saxe
In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions