Now You’re in Law School. What Should You Take?

There’s more than one path to environmentally meaningful work.

On Monday, I explained why this is an especially urgent time for new law students to be thinking about the climate crisis and how they can contribute as lawyers. The next question is how to prepare for that work. 

Here’s what I would say to a student in that position:

The first thing to realize is that you can make a contribution without being an “environmental lawyer” in the conventional sense. If you do corporate work, you can focus on ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance). This is a lively area of practice and only likely to get more important. If you become an IP lawyer, there’s work to be done on clean energy technologies.  Or you can work for the government — for instance, as someone who prosecutes environmental crimes.

One important area for work involves the energy sector. Clean energy has been growing rapidly, and Congress recently poured $379 billion more into cleaning up our energy system.  That means lots of new start-ups, expansions of existing energy firms, complicated financing agreements — and lots of work for new business lawyers, who can put their expertise to work for companies while helping to save the planet at the same time.  This is going to be a growth area for law firms and correspondingly an attractive career path for new lawyers.

The second thing to realize is that there are very important environment-adjacent fields:

  • Energy Law.  Energy regulation is increasingly entwined with the need to cut carbon emissions. Energy regulation matters because  the economic incentives need to be in the right places for the energy transition to happen.
  • Land Use Law.  Land use law also has important links to environmental law. Traditional land use law is tied in with urban sprawl, a big problem in terms of carbon emissions and urban air pollution. There are a lot of rules governing land development, not all of them embodied in zoning laws. The Endangered Species Act can have a big effect on land use in some parts of the country.
  • Social Justice Lawyering. Given the increasing importance of environmental justice, civil rights and other inequality-oriented courses can provide a different pathway to working on environmental issues.

For each of these different paths, there may also be different environmental courses that are most relevant. So if you happen to be at a school with a broad array of environmental courses, thinking about these different tracks may help you decide which ones are the most relevant.

Unfortunately, that’s a minority of schools, judging by what I’ve seen looking at law school course catalogues. If you want to specialize in environmental law but aren’t at a law school that offers a lot of environmental law courses, you should think about adjacent fields like land use and energy law as providing alternative relevant courses.

A final thing I’d emphasize is that if you want to be an environmental lawyer — as opposed, say to being a business lawyer whose work involves ESG issues — you really need to take a class on administrative law. You might think the subject sounds dry, but it’s at the heart of the disputes in our country over government regulation. Not all of environmental law involves government regulation, but more than 90% of it does.

There may also be opportunities to take classes outside the law school; to participate in environmentally oriented student groups; or to write about environmental issues in seminars, independent study courses, or law review. If you’re at a school that doesn’t do much in environmental law, you may need to be entrepreneurial in seeking out new opportunities.

Whether you’re at a school with a lot of environmental offerings or at one of the many that have only a few, there are a lot of paths forward. Whichever one you choose, you can help save the world from an unsustainable future. But don’t wait too long.  You’re needed right away.

 

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Reader Comments

5 Replies to “Now You’re in Law School. What Should You Take?”

  1. May I be so bold as to suggest that schools without a lot of environmental offerings consider my book Social-Ecological Resilience and Sustainability, coauthored with Jonathan Rosenbloom, and published with ASPEN. Part I provides students with a conceptual foundation to explore the interdisciplinary nature of resilience and sustainability while Part II views R&S in eight law and policy contexts: water, food, shelter/land use, energy, natural resources, pollution, disaster law, and climate change. I use this book to teach Environmental Law so that my students can explore all of these different topics in one course.

  2. Speaking of good books, law students should check out “Fighting Pollution and Climate Change: An EPA Veterans’ Guide How to Join in Saving Our Life on Planet Earth”; to see it, visit http://www.fightingpollutionbook.com. With input from four former colleagues who also were EPA enforcement attorneys, I write to inspire today’s young professionals to enjoy the fulfillment, adventures, and ultimately joy in such a career. I became our nation’s top lawyer for all EPA investigations of pollution crime, and then worked in EPA’s missions of foreign assistance on environmental problems that require global cooperation to achieve solutions.

  3. Dan, how about a course on fixing this problem with the greatest sense of urgency!?:

    “Where Berkeley falls short, in my view, is that there’s little leadership from the top and little structure at the campus level to organize climate efforts.”

  4. Dan, name the course “SOS” for Save Our Society.

    It can’t last a whole semester because current climate change disasters are proving we are out of time to perpetuate an acceptable quality of life if our Best and Brightest can’t overcome the threats with the required urgency.

    And, the Powers That Be must attend because they must immediately implement the final exam.

  5. Dan, I no longer have any choice but to conclude that the Power of Money has corrupted far too many of our political and intellectual leaders (using the Durants conclusion of why civilizations fail) to the point where it appears we have failed to overcome global warming in time to save our own civilization. I would really like to have you prove me wrong for the sake of our newest generations, like “How are you going to save our civilization in time?”

    However, the question remains: Why don’t academicians learn from the Lessons of History? Or, Never Mind, this years climate change disasters alone prove it’s too late because academicians refused to join together to educate and motivate the public because the public is considered by academics to be too “Impure” (Hofstadter), as shown in:

    NBC News poll: Split between GOP and Democrats over federal climate action widens
    Climate ranked low in terms of voter concerns about the most important issues facing the country, behind threats to democracy, the cost of living and jobs and the economy.

    https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/nbc-news-poll-split-gop-democrats-federal-climate-action-widens-rcna44501

    Have you started your new “SOS” class, and signed up the Powers That Be to solve our Global Warming problems during this semester?

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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