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.

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Meredith James
Dianne Saxe
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